“A Cinderella story” is not an inappropriate way to describe the achievements of University of Tulsa student-athlete Caitlin Klopfer (BA/BS ’21). No, this is not a fairy tale about a young woman who found herself at the mercy of a cruel stepmother and stepsisters only to later be united with a handsome prince. Instead, it’s the Cinderella story that’s often found in sport when a competitor achieves far greater success than would reasonably have been expected.
Klopfer came to Tulsa in August 2016 as a walk-on athlete. She left as a champion both on the field and in the classroom, earning 12 letters in track and cross country and registering a 3.956 grade-point average as a double major in chemical engineering and French. She ended her collegiate running career as a seven-time all-conference selection, two-time all-region performer, the American Athletic Conference 10,000-meter champion and runner-up at the 2020 AAC Cross Country Championships.
And there’s more: Klopfer’s academic prowess put her on the President’s List with a perfect 4.00 GPA in nine of 10 semesters. In addition, Klopfer was a two-time American Athletic Conference Female Cross Country Scholar-Athlete of the Year selection and was The American’s 2020 Overall Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
“Caitlin is the epitome of the Cinderella story,” said Head Coach Steve Gulley. “I don’t know many kids who have ever come to school on an academic scholarship and finished their careers as a conference champion. It’s very unusual.”
Running and chemistry
Klopfer’s story began in her hometown of Ballwin, Missouri. As a youngster, she was not involved in sports. “Athletics was never my thing growing up. I was always pretty focused on school,” she recalled. “I was very, very small growing up, and I was pretty awful at every sport I tried and neither of my parents were super athletic. Our parents really encouraged my brother and me to be the people we really were, and we weren’t athletes. I wanted to be a movie director growing up, so my friends and I would write scripts and do short films.”
Although Klopfer experimented with playing volleyball in middle school, it wasn’t until age 15 that she began running: “Entering my sophomore year of high school I thought that I would try out for the cross-country team and hang out with my friends who were team members. I fell in love with it. I wasn’t that good, but I just loved it.”
Even though her running took off as a prep senior, Klopfer was more focused than ever that year on academics and eyeing a college that offered a top-notch engineering program. “I always loved math and science,” she said. “I had a really great chemistry teacher in high school who opened my eyes to how science and math could have a practical application. I started to understand how you could take all this theory and actually engineer together whatever you wanted to build, and for me, since I liked chemistry so much, chemical engineering made a lot of sense.”
From high school to college
During most of high school, the thought of running in college never really crossed Klopfer’s mind. “But after an October practice,” she recalled, “my coach turned to me and said ‘Caitlin, I really think you should consider running in college.’ Most people were already going on recruiting visits, but he told me to look at some colleges in the area.”
In February, Klopfer decided to reach out to TU because its cross-country program had piqued her interest. The school’s nationally recognized engineering program was just a huge bonus. “I emailed the coaches with my stats and inquired about becoming a walk-on. (Assistant Coach) Taylor Gulley reached out to me, and on our second call he told me there would be a spot for me to walk on.”
That phone call began a future that Klopfer never saw coming and neither did the TU coaches. “I never thought I would have accomplished in running what I’ve been able to do at TU. I just can’t thank the university and coaches enough for giving me a shot. I truly never expected this,” she said.
During her time at university, Klopfer became the well-rounded student-athlete every coach desires. “Caitlin has a lot of character and she cared about her teammates. When you think about champions they tend to think of themselves, but Caitlin put her teammates ahead of her,” commented Steve Gulley.
A stellar finish
The TU women had their best two cross-country seasons in school history the past two years as Klopfer led the Hurricane to back-to-back conference titles and NCAA appearances in 2019 and 2020. She finished among the top three individually at the last two AAC Championships and in the top 70 among a field of over 260 participants at the NCAA Championships.
“I didn’t want to be known for a singular thing in college. I couldn’t just be an engineer or just be an athlete. I wanted to run 10 miles, conduct a lab on heat exchange and read an essay in French all in the same day. Studying French enriched my communication skills. Engineering classes gave me an analytical mindset. Track workouts made me tougher,” Klopfer said.
“I never saw the strain of academics on Caitlin, but I knew how high a priority academics was in her life. To balance both sport and academics and not have a coach notice is remarkable,” Gulley added.
Klopfer emphasizes that she could not have accomplished so much without the support she received during her collegiate career: “TU allowed me to do everything I wanted to do. I know that it was kind of an unusual situation trying to balance engineering with studying a language and participating in athletics. I was pretty worried coming into college that I would have to sacrifice one of those things – or sacrifice my sanity, my social life or something – but no one flinched when I said I wanted to pursue all three. I loved that and am so appreciative.”
Klopfer, who from age 15 to 23 went from barely running to running 75 miles per week, doesn’t see her love for the sport coming to an end any time soon: “I’ll take a little bit of a break and won’t be running 75 miles a week, but I can’t see a future without running in my life.”
After interning the past two summers at Burns & McDonnell in Chicago, Klopfer now has a full-time position with the company. On June 28, she started as an assistant chemical engineer in the food and consumer products division. There’s no doubt that this stellar scholar and athlete will carry the success she found at TU into the next chapter of her life.
Contact TU’s Center for Career Development and Professional Engagement for help finding and landing an internship that matches your academic and work goals.