Time is not a problem for Stanford center Val Whiting, All-America and premed student. There's too little time, sure, but that's no hindrance—she simply squeezes the last drop out of every moment. Some days Whiting brings her books to the court and studies until the last possible minute before practice. She runs conditioning sprints and then, between gasps, discusses her chemistry lab with a teammate. For Whiting, you see, time is only a problem if you waste it.
"All-America and premed student" doesn't begin to tell the story of Val Whiting. That description sounds too neat and ordered. The truth is, the boundaries blur and each pursuit—books and basketball—constantly intrudes on the other, making her a sort of hybrid: Val Whiting, All-premed-America. That's closer to the way her life really is.
"Val carries the weight of the world on her shoulders sometimes," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer says. "She takes life very seriously. She wants to be the best player possible, and she wants to be a doctor, and when anything seems to get in the way of cither one, it gets to her."
Is this Tuesday? For Whiting, that means chemistry lecture and lab, homework due in ecology and genetics, an hour and a half of basketball practice, studying until at least midnight. And the basketball season hasn't started yet. Wait until finals week bumps up against the NCAA tournament, the way it did last year, when she had to complete a physiology exam during the West Regional. "I know I've bitten off a lot," says the 20-year-old Whiting, who hopes to specialize in pediatrics or sports medicine. "School and basketball are both so demanding. When I'm involved with one, the other is always there in the back of my mind. But my ultimate goal is to be a doctor."
That doesn't mean she's not passionate about basketball. A 6'3", 185-pound senior. Whiting is a combination of bulk and quickness, which makes her a nightmare to defend near the basket and a relentless force as a rebounder. Her grit and drive have made her a crowd favorite at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. Last season she averaged 18.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, but those are just numbers. More telling is the fact that she was the best player on the country's best team, the heart of Stanford's national champions. And with all live starters from last season returning, the Cardinal is a favorite to repeat as champs. A national title this season would be Whiting's third in four years with the Cardinal, and it doesn't take a Gallup poll to determine that she's the leading preseason candidate for player of the year.
Last year, Washington coach Chris Gobrecht said Whiting was the best player in the country. "She embodies so many of the qualities coaches look for—intensity, unselfishness, constant effort," Gobrecht said. "You just want to hold her up to other players as an example of what's possible."
Whiting the athlete and Whiting the student are very much the same: unspectacular, but solid and hardworking. "The trick is to keep at it," she says. "It's not who runs the race fastest, but who finishes." Nevertheless, Whiting will put up an argument it you try to characterize her as a driven, humorless woman. She will tell you that she considers herself "a serious person who likes to laugh." Her lighter moments usually occur late at night when she's punchy from studying, or when she's cruising in her battered Porsche 914, a 19-year-old car with an engine so noisy that the campus police once pulled her over because they simply couldn't believe their ears. Could a person with no sense of humor drive a car like that?
And yet when the student and the athlete clash, when one role has to be chosen ahead of the other, Whiting genuinely suffers. When asked why she turned down an invitation to the Olympic trials last spring, she will politely reply that she would rather not talk about it. Her father, Reginald, reveals that the trials conflicted with final exams, "it still bothers her that she couldn't find a way to do it all," he says. "That's the way she is. I know I can expect a phone call when a game or a road trip forces her to miss class time. That upsets her, the thought that she's going to fall behind. I have to say, "Valeria, calm down. Pretend you're at the foul line shooting a free throw. Take a deep breath and relax."
She will pursue another NCAA championship the way she approaches everything else: "Like a fullback," Reginald says. "Valeria tends to take the ball and run straight ahead...whether there's a hole there or not."
As a seventh-grader in Wilmington, Del., Whiting wanted more than anything to be a member of the Talley Junior High cheerleading squad. "It was the thing to do," she remembers. "Athletic women weren't seen as attractive in boys' eyes, but cheerleaders, they were something." Whiting, naturally, prepared diligently for cheerleader tryouts, practicing cartwheels and cheers for weeks. But a gangly, awkward 12-year-old who is pushing six feet isn't usually considered prime cheerleading material, and Whiting didn't make the squad. She was devastated, and she was not cheered up when her math teacher suggested that a girl with her height should try basketball. But Reginald thought it was a good idea. If you get to be good enough, he told her, those cheerleaders will be working for you one day. "So I tried it, and I didn't like it, at least not at first," says Val. "I felt uncoordinated and uncomfortable."