Junior sprinter and mid-distance runner Sophie Antonioli eagerly sat on the plane to Johannesburg, South Africa for the second time. She couldn’t wait to return as a volunteer at the Dell Cheetah Centre, a non-profit organization dedicated to returning cheetahs to the wild.
This summer, Antonioli spent five weeks living her lifelong passion.
“Since I was young, I’ve always had an interest in big cats,” Antonioli said.
The Dell Cheetah Centre works to combat the depleting population of African cheetahs, which have been added to the endangered species list. Restoration efforts include breeding, training and researching cheetahs.
Antonioli first proposed the idea of traveling abroad to her parents after her senior year of high school. However, her parents felt she was too young to travel by herself at that time. Antonioli persuaded them to allow her to go to Johannesburg the following year, where she began her work at the Dell Cheetah Centre for the first time.
Antonioli, who at the time was interested in veterinary medicine, was finally making her childhood dream a reality.
Fellow junior pole vaulter Caity Reverand, who befriended Antonioli when they were both first-year students, said Antonioli has devoted endless energy to volunteering at the non-profit organization.
“She was so upset over the continuing cheetah extinction,” Reverand said. “She kept telling me that she wanted to make a difference.”
From the first time Antonioli arrived at the Dell Cheetah Centre, she said she was stunned.
Antonioli said she found inspiration in the dedication of the non-profit organization and those involved in the community. She said she loved spending time with the cats and formed deep relationships with all of them.
“They each have such distinct, individual personalities,” she said. “There are some I could get in the enclosure with and feed. I could walk up and scratch their necks.”
Although Antonioli bonded with all of the cheetahs, she particularly liked Cassidy, who left playful scars on Antonioli’s arms.
“They’re fading, finally,” she said.
Although Antonioli’s scratches and the memories of her volunteer work in South Africa might fade as the year goes on, the gentleness, fragility and affection she learned from the cats will stay with her. She hopes to use these qualities as she embarks on a new career path: one that might lead her to medical school.
“Everything I wanted to do for my whole life is changing,” she said.
Those around Antonioli, including women’s assistant track and field coach Deborah Utesch, see her dexterous handling of adversity and confidence as she learns to carve out a new path.
“She’s a very intelligent young woman who assesses a whole process,” Utesch said. “There’s a lot of pieces she’s sorted through to figure out where she wants to go. She knows things won’t just fall in her lap.”
Although Antonioli may not not return to the Dell Cheetah Centre, she said she will never forget the work she did as well as the bonds she created.