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SportsKid of the Year 2015: Reece Whitley

Ten-year-old Reece Whitley, a kid who has always hovered between the 97th and the 99th percentile for height, was more than a little excited when his parents agreed to put up a basketball hoop in their front driveway just outside Philadelphia. “We thought he wasn’t going to let the cement dry around the base of it,” recalls his mom, Kim. Shortly afterward, she lost her parking spot in the driveway because Reece was outside every evening playing basketball when she returned home from work. 

Reece had begun playing competitive basketball when he was seven — around the same time he began T-ball and swimming — and he was, of course, a post player. A self-described “solid mid-range shooter,” Reece could dunk on a hoop by the time he was 13, though he never dunked in a game.

While he still loves basketball, Reece, now 15 and 6' 8", is no longer on a team. But the sophomore at William Penn Charter School has won a junior national championship and holds five individual national age-group records in the pool, where he has become one of the top young swimmers in the country. His times in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke last year qualified him to compete at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials this June in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s also become a role model for young swimmers in his community and wherever he travels. “I’ve had so much fun watching him grow, continue to love the sport, and advocate for the sport,” says Crystal Keelan, the head coach at Penn Charter Aquatic Club (PCAC). “As he’s maturing, he’s wanting to spread the word about swimming and making connections with people of all ages.”

For his talent, humility, and willingness to mentor younger athletes in his sport, Reece Whitley is the 2015 Sports Illustrated Kids SportsKid of the Year.

Drive and Dedication

Reece has always loved being around water. When he was a toddler, bath time was a favorite activity. Trains, cars, boats — anything that floated or, more likely, didn’t float — went into the tub. “Hot Wheels always ended up in the water,” recalls Kim.

Despite this affinity for the water, though, Reece’s swimming career had an inauspicious beginning. It’s a family joke now, but when he was six years old, he failed the deep-water test at summer camp. “It was treading water for a certain amount of time, and I couldn’t do it,” Reece recalls with a laugh. He began taking lessons later that summer. 

When he had been at it for a couple years, it was as hard to get Reece out of the pool as it was to get him out of that tub when he was two. If a coach or parent couldn’t find him as his race time approached, he was probably still in the warmup pool, socializing, doing handstands and somersaults, or just floating around.

As much fun as Reece was having at swim meets, he was also falling in love with basketball and baseball. On the diamond, he played first and third base, but he really stood out on the mound, where his height and arm-length became more of an advantage the older he became.

Twelve-year-old Reece was already 6' 4" and was wearing a size 14 basketball shoe while playing for a travel AAU team. As a 13-year-old, he developed a breaking ball to go with his fastball. “He was pretty much unhittable once he got those two pitches together,” recalls Mervin Woodlin, who coached Reece’s 12- and 13-year-old Little League teams. “He was our ace pitcher.” 

In the meantime, Reece began to excel in the pool at a national level. He broke his first age-group national record, as a member of PCAC’s 400-meter medley relay team, when he was 12. And he began setting national individual short-course records in the breaststroke.

“That’s kind of when I put down the baseball bat and the basketball,” says Reece. “It was an easy transition.”

In 2014, as a 14-year-old, Reece lowered the national age-group record for the 200-meter breaststroke three times, and he lowered it twice for the 100. He also qualified to compete at the Olympic trials.

“The thing I love about Reece is that when he does something, he’s all in,” says his father, Karl. “He’s not lukewarm about anything, whether it’s his grades or practice or games or winning.”

This year, competing in the 15- and 16-year-old division, Reece has continued to win, and the records have continued to fall. He lowered the national record in the 200, the race he won at the 2015 Speedo Junior National Championships, three times. And he came in second in the 100 at the 2015 FINA World Junior Championships.

He also swam in the B final of the 200-meter breaststroke at the Phillips 66 National Championships, finishing in 2:11.30, the exact time that Michael Phelps recorded in his fifth-place finish in the main final that day. They first met in Charlotte earlier this year. “We talked about staying humble,” says Reece, “and never being too satisfied with your goals.”

Phelps, at 30, now refers to himself as the “old dude” in the sport. “Getting to know Reece a little bit, he’s incredible. The guy is very talented, he’s super relaxed, super outgoing, just kind of go-with-the-flow,” says Phelps. “He’s seeing results, he’s having fun, he’s enjoying himself. He’s a stud.”

Olympic Dreams

Reece certainly seems to have the “staying humble” and “having fun” part down pat. He signed his first autograph when he was 12, and he still gets a kick out of it when anyone asks. “It’s fun to do,” says Reece. “I take it as a surprise every time. I look at myself as somebody who hasn’t really done much for the sport yet.” 

Yet. Over the next six months, Reece’s primary goal — other than getting good grades, including in his honors chemistry and algebra classes and in Chinese — is lowering his time in the 200, his best event. His fastest time in that race (2:11.30) is around two seconds slower than the U.S. qualifying time for the 2012 London Olympics (2:09.09). 

“As well as he did this summer, we’re still working on some new techniques with him,” says Keelan. “Right now our main focus is working on speeding up his tempo and maintaining that tempo.”

Adds Phelps, “He’s got a good head on his shoulders. It’s all about making good decisions, and so far he’s made a bunch of good decisions, and he’s come a long way. I’d like to see him keep succeeding and remember what it took to get where he is.” 

Reece currently swims with PCAC six days a week — from 6 to 8:30 p.m. and on Saturday mornings — and arrives at the school at 6 a.m. three days a week for strength training (by himself or in a small group) before class. He works on technique for an hour on Sundays one-on-one with Keelan.

Meanwhile he’ll continue to set an example for other kids in his sport, telling his own story of hard work. “He practices in the pool with our 10-and-under and 12-and-under swimmers,” says Keelan. “If they’re not really on target or focused, we’ll just ask Reece to talk to them for 10 minutes, and of course they’re just in awe listening to him.”

Says Reece, “Making an impact on a young swimmer at a meet is probably more important than the times that you swim. All these records are meant to be broken, but if you change a kid’s life or if you put a smile on a kid’s face because you took a picture with them, that never dies.”

Photos: Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated (with kids), Domeyko Photography (with Phelps, in ECAC cap), A.Masini/Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto (on board, medal)

sportskid of the year 2015 reece whitley
sportskid of the year 2015 reece whitley