by Tom Utescher
When a seven-year-old Reece Whitley entered the swimming pool at Penn Charter, it was a little scary. Now that he’s a 6’8” 10th-grader, it still is.
Back when he was a lower school student attending PC’s summer day camp, he failed the deep-water swimming test, causing some concern for his parents. These days, he overcomes every challenge thrown at him, and when he slips into the pool, the ones who worry are his opponents.
In his specialty, the breast stroke, he has set numerous national records in various age groups. This past summer at the overall USA Swimming National Championships in San Antonio, Texas, his time of two minutes, 11.30 seconds in the 200 meter breast stroke established a new standard in the 15 & 16’s category. An identical time was turned in by one of the older guys at the meet, Michael Phelps. Since Whitley won’t turn 16 until early next year, he’ll have a shot to set the age-group record yet again.
His performance in Texas earned the Lafayette Hill resident a trip abroad with the U.S. Junior National Team at the end of August. In Singapore, he and his teammates competed in the 2015 FINA (a French acronym for swimming’s international governing body) World Junior Swimming Championships. There, he won a silver medal in the individual 100 meter breast stroke with a time of 1:01.00, and won another silver with his 400 medley relay teammates, turning in a 1:00.82 split in his leg of the race. He was fourth in the 200 meter individual breaststroke.
Out of the pool, Whitley had a chance to test his proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, a language he has been studying since the eighth grade.
“We didn’t get out and about much because we were at the pool all the time,” he related, “but we were staying in the same hotel as the Chinese team and we had dinner with them.”
As for the world meet itself, he said “It’s something that I’ll never forget, because it was the first time I represented Team USA internationally. Some of my best friends on the team are the guys who broke the world record in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. They just destroyed the field, and when they were up on the podium and they were playing the National Anthem, it was amazing.”
Whitley has been attending Penn Charter since Kindergarten. His father, Karl Whitley, is an ear, nose, and throat surgeon at Temple University Hospital, and his mother Kim Smith-Whitley, is a pediatric hematologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
He’s an only child; one of the reasons he says he’s enjoyed that is because it makes for a peaceful studying environment at home. His parents help keep him keep his priorities in order.
“Academics come first in the Whitley household,” he states.
In addition to his classes in Mandarin, he’s also taking advanced chemistry and advanced algebra courses. When he eventually picks a college, it’ll be one with a strong academic reputation, whatever the status of its swim team.
His parents are both from the Washington D.C. area. His mother played field hockey in high school and his father ran track and performed in the shot put. Due to the demands of a pre-med curriculum, neither one pursued collegiate athletics.
Karl Whitley is close to 6’3” tall and his son related, “I’ve been told of a distant cousin who was 6’10”, but I’m not sure if that’s true.”
His initial struggle with swimming at summer camp wasn’t because he was afraid of the water; in truth, he’s always loved it. It was simply due to lack of experience and instruction, and his parents soon remedied that.
“I was seven and it was right here in this pool,” he recalled. “I started getting lessons a couple of weeks later.”
His current coach, Crystal Coleman (formerly Keelan), has been guiding him since she arrived on School House Lane four years ago to work with both the Quakers’ school teams and the Penn Charter Aquatic Club. Earlier, he was coached by her husband-to-be, Paul Coleman, who mentored PC swimmers for many years.
“He was always a talented swimmer, and then around age 11 he really began to blossom,” said Crystal Coleman, who starred at Council Rock North High School and then at York (Pa.) College. “His love for the water was a pretty good indicator – he was constantly in the pool. Even between events at meets, he’ll be in the warm-up or cool-down pools.”
Of his parents, Coleman said, “They’ve been very realistic. It’s difficult to have a child get to this level and not get overexcited, but they’ve been wonderful. They let Reece and I work together on his schedule, and let him figure out how far he wanted to go with swimming.”
As he came to grips with the time commitment that would be required for him to reach his potential in the pool, Whitley was the one who made the decision to pare down his other extracurricular activities. The multi-talented young man enjoys music, but he gave up playing the tuba in the school orchestra. When younger, he’d been passionate about baseball and basketball. He decided to stop playing hoops at 13, and baseball followed a year later.
Still, he’s glad that he was able to engage in those various endeavors and wasn’t forced to focus on just one activity from a very young age. At PC, he still belongs to the Endangered Species Awareness Club and the Current Events Club, and was a member of Student Council as a freshman.
Even in swimming, his sharp intellect and natural curiosity have served him well, particularly his affinity for mathematics and science.
“There’s a lot of math involved in competitive swimming to begin with,” Coach Coleman pointed out, “and when you get to his level every 100th of a second counts. You’re always breaking down numbers in your performances. Reece was like a sponge for knowledge. He always wanted to know more, and what was the reason for doing this or that.”
One thing that’s never entered Whitley’s repertoire is any kind of superstitious pre-race ritual.
“I just sort of listen to music and hang out,” he said. “I do like to make sure that I have a nap between preliminary races and a final.”
When the layperson thinks of lanky swimmers, events like freestyle and backstroke come to mind, and traditionally breast stroke champions haven’t been particularly tall. One of the all-time U.S. greats, Olympian Brendan Hansen, is around six feet in height, and the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medalist from Japan, Kosuke Kitajimi, is listed at 5’10.”
“I can give you an answer about almost anything in my swim career, but I really do not know how the breast stroke stuck,” Whitley mused. “It just kind of happened, and I was only about 10 when I realized that breast stroke was my thing. I was really kind of fortunate to find my stroke at such a young age, because it takes many people a lot longer.”
Coleman commented, “I think within swimming height is always an advantage. It hasn’t tended to matter as much for breast stroke, but things are changing.”
Kevin Cortes, the current American record holder in the 100 and 200, stands 6’5”, and young U.S. phenom Michael Andrew, who excels at the breast stroke and almost everything else, is the same height.
Whitley actually admitted that other strokes may be more enjoyable to perform, and he observed, “Breast stroke is the slowest stroke, technically, because there are so many points where you’re stopping and starting. It’s all about minimizing the time you spend in those stop-and-start positions.”
As well as he did in Singapore, he did not feel that his stroke was spot-on in terms of technique. He and Coleman decided to do some fine tuning.
“It sounds funny to people to hear that you’re trying to change something around with an athlete at his level,” she said. “The thing is that Reece never had a real growth spurt, he just always grew steadily. We’ve only had him lifting (weights) for less than a year; some people start earlier but we didn’t think it was developmentally appropriate. He’s probably not going to grow much more, but he is getting stronger, and we need to reexamine what he’s doing from time to time.”
Whitley said that in his races at the FINA championships, when he extended his arms forward to begin the stroke, “I was bringing my elbows up under me and I had them pretty close together. We decided to change it so that it’s a little more of a flat stroke – I think it’s a more efficient movement. It’s been working out very well in practice, and I’ve been dropping time.”
Many talented young athletes feel a need to seek out new, high-profile coaches when they emerge onto the national scene, but Whitley is adamantly loyal to Coleman.
“I see no reason to change,” he said emphatically. “I plan on sticking with Crystal until college.”
He remains true to his school, as well.
“I really enjoyed the teachers at Penn Charter when I was younger,” he said, “and now I appreciate the fact that they’re understanding of my situation. Sometimes, I do have to miss school, and they realize that it’s not always easy to balance the schoolwork with the swimming events. They try to accommodate me, being a little flexible about deadlines and that kind of thing.”
Whitley began to attract national attention when he chalked up his first major records as a 12-year-old. Now, his stature and his achievements make it difficult, literally and figuratively, to keep a low profile. He’s discussed this at national events with other young swimmers who’ve earned notoriety, and he even received some advice from Olympic legend Phelps when they swam together in Texas this summer.
“He was in the Olympics at my age, which is scary to think about,” pointed out Whitley. “He emphasized staying grounded and keeping your eyes set on your goals, and to keep after those goals no matter what you’re faced with or what’s happening around you.”
Coleman said, “The younger kids at Penn Charter are always super excited to see Reece in the pool or just walking around school. He’s great with them. He’s just a really nice kid, and everyone likes to be around him.”
“I think I would’ve been a good older brother,” he remarked. “I kind of have a lot of younger brothers here; the kids like to hang around and ask questions, and I enjoy that.”
For the scholastic season ahead, Coleman revealed that one of the goals for the young tower of talent is to have him break the pool records of the other schools Charter will face in road meets. He’ll continue to grow stronger as his weight-training program ramps up, and Coleman will have him start to prepare to take on a leadership role for the team.
“We have great captains this year, but it’ll be Reece’s turn soon,” she noted. “He began swimming varsity as an eighth-grader, but he’s no longer the youngest guy on the team.”
For Whitley, as with other emerging teenage stars who are having an impact on the national swimming scene, questions about making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team are now hovering around.
“I’m thinking about times, personal improvement, not being on the Olympic Team or the World Championships Team,” he commented. “If I can reach the times I have in my head, that will get me to where I want to be. Whatever level I reach, I want to represent the U.S. in the best way that I can.”
For someone in his position, the Penn Charter pool, more than ever, is a comfortable place to be, a familiar refuge.
“One of the things that’s nice is that the swim team hasn’t put me on a pedestal,” he explained. “They support me and they root for me when I’m competing in a national meet, but when I’m here with the team I’m just a Penn Charter swimmer. That’s valuable to me, because I don’t want to be the kind of guy who’s just out there on his own.”
Reflecting on everything that’s been happening in his young life over the past few years, Whitley said “I’m just really trying to enjoy the ride as much as I can. When teachers ask me how I’m handling the whole thing, that’s what I say – I’m trying to enjoy it and live in the moment.
“It’s tough balancing the swimming and school, and I’m just trying to experience high school as normally as possible. There have been a lot of experiences, a lot of good things, that have been accumulating around my swimming, and that’s something that I appreciate and will always treasure.”