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Charlotte Whittaker talks to reporters during the University of Colorado, Boulder women’s basketball media day on October 5, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Charlotte Whittaker talks to reporters during the University of Colorado, Boulder women’s basketball media day on October 5, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

There is literally a new bounce in the step of Charlotte Whittaker this fall.

A fifth-year junior center with the Colorado women’s basketball team, Whittaker is back on the court after five surgeries to fix genetic issues with both hips. The New Zealand native missed the entire 2021-22 season and hasn’t played a game in more than 18 months.

“I do weirdly feel more athletic,” she said before practice last week. “I might not look it, but I definitely feel more athletic and more stable and everything. I think as I continue to grow and get stronger within that area that I’ll start seeing way more improvements, as well. It feels a lot different and pain-free, which I love.”

Whittaker, who joined the Buffs in January of 2019, has played in only two seasons at CU and did so through pain. Once her hip issues were discovered, she opted for the long process of fixing the problem.

Shortly after the Women’s NIT in March of 2021, Whittaker had two surgeries on her left hip. Following months of rehabilitation, she had two surgeries on her right hip. After more rehab, she had a fifth surgery to finish the process.

“Being out for that long and having to stay in the hospital for multiple weeks at a time and not being able to move a lot and really starting from like ground zero, learning how to walk and run again, that was really hard mentally,” she said. “I think the support that I had through the school, especially through my teammates and my coaches was outstanding.”

She also credits CU’s Chris Miller – her physical therapist – and Adam Ringler, the team’s strength coach.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said. “Coming back, especially so fast and being where I am now, we didn’t really expect that. Obviously a lot of mental struggle and that I had to work through, but I think with that came an appreciation for being able to play the sport, and being able to come back. It’s been really great and I’m truly grateful that I could come back and play.”

Despite the mental and physical difficulty of coming back, Whittaker never doubted her desire to return to the court. She was fully cleared several weeks ago and is enjoying working with her teammates again.

“It feels amazing,” she said. “To go through this road of rehab and recovery and not being able to play last season, I missed out on a lot and missed the camaraderie of the team and being able to play and contribute. Being back this year and being able to play for the team and be back in the program and getting up and down the floor, it feels really good.”

Head coach JR Payne is glad to have her back. Whittaker has played in 50 games as a Buff, mostly off the bench. She has averaged 15.2 minutes, while posting 5.5 points and 2.6 rebounds per game.

When healthy, she gives the Buffs a significant boost in the frontcourt, especially after CU lost Mya Hollingshed and Peanut Tuitele to graduation.

“It’s incredible to see how she’s moving, how she’s playing,” Payne said. “She’s really kind of regained her form. Two years ago in the WNIT, in the postseason, Charlotte was probably our best player.”

With new and improved hips, Whittaker is hoping to be a significant contributor once again. For now, she’s enjoying daily battles in practice with fellow posts Quay Miller and Aaronette Vonleh.

“One thing I wanted coming back in was I didn’t want people to kind of tiptoe around me or take it lightly that I was coming back,” Whittaker said. “I want to be pushed and I want to be prepared for the season. I asked for those girls to really stick by that promise and continue to work hard themselves and then push me to be better. Coming back from this injury and knowing my goals through that I think is really important and I thank them a lot for that. It’s great competition.”