Like many young athletes, 15-year-old Reece Whitley has dreams of one day competing in the Olympics. Unlike most kids, though, Reece is this close to making those dreams a reality.
The 6-foot-8 freshman at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia is one of America’s brightest up-and-coming swimming stars. He holds two National Age Group records, has a spot on the USA Junior National Team, and fast enough times in the 100 and 200 breaststroke to have already qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Not bad for someone who struggled in the pool early on.
“I was at a summer camp [at Penn Charter when I was 7], and I failed the deep-water test,” Reece says. “My mom got me [swimming] lessons and it kind of just turned into this.”
Of course, “this” — the skill, the awards, the records — didn’t happen by itself. Reece is passionate about swimming, works hard, and is incredibly committed to being his best.
He trains for two hours a day after school, and recently he began lifting weights three mornings a week. That’s on top of the time he puts in at school, doing homework and just being a student.
Reece says his teachers are very supportive, especially as he looks ahead to an upcoming USA Swimming-run trip. That’s where the top six 18-and-under swimmers in each Olympic event will travel to Colorado to for a training camp and to get to know each other.
“I just had to meet with a bunch of [my teachers] over me leaving [for the trip],” Reece says. “This is the first time I’m missing school for swimming in a little bit, but they all are so supportive of what I do and they really just let me be me.”
He has strong support in the pool, too.
Crystal Keelan has been Reece’s coach since he was 11 years old. She originally coached him during private weekend lessons where he worked on strokes, starts, and turns. But a year later, Keelan began coaching for the Penn Charter School swim teams and the Penn Charter Aquatic Club team.
“He loves coming to practice. He’s always looking for something to improve,” Keelan says. “If he feels like something is a little off in practice he’ll just kind of flag me down and say, ‘Crystal can you look at this, does this feel off?’ He’s very good at feeling his mistakes and feeling his strengths, and that makes for a very promising swimmer.”
Reece also leans on his teammates on the Penn Charter swim team. They support him during his big meets, even when other team members are also competing.
This is especially important in swimming, a sport that can be very solitary. Although many swimmers are part of a team, most races are swum solo. So success — and failure — comes down to the individual. You have one race to do your best, and a slow jump into the pool or a shaky stroke could be the difference between winning and losing.
Reece learned that lesson the hard way last summer.
He was in California for the Junior National Championships, and he was the youngest kid in the 200 breaststroke A Final by three years. He says he let the circumstances — and the other swimmers — throw him off his game.
“You kind of read about the guys that you’re racing against committing to this school, they’re going to go here, and I made a mistake by getting caught up in that, and not really focusing on myself,” Reece adds.
He finished third in the meet, behind an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old. But he bounced back later in the year, setting the National Age Group record in the boys 13-14 100 breaststroke with a time of 53.84 seconds. (The previous record was 53.88 seconds.)
At Penn Charter, Reece might be the star. But he knows that despite his individual success he can’t succeed on his own.
“My friends are the ones that bleed with me in the pool, cry with me out of the pool,” he says. “You struggle through training with them, and I try to support them as much as they support me.”
Come 2016, that could mean his teammates, and the country, cheering him on in Rio at the Summer Olympics.
Photo: Tim Binning/TheSwimPictures.com (swimming), Oliva D’Angelo (Reece and Crystal)