Reece Whitley is attempting to enter uncharted waters.
Whitley, 20, is one of the top swimmers in the country in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke races. He attends the University of California-Berkeley, one of the premier swim programs in the country.
But his goals extend farther than the 25 yards in the NCAA pools. The 6-foot-9 swimmer, a native of Philadelphia and former swimmer at William Penn Charter School, is trying to reach new heights by earning a berth in the Olympics and potentially joining a small list of African American swimmers to stand on the podium with a medal.
Whitley’s pursuit will have to wait another year since the Olympics were postponed until 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Having the Olympics in 2020 would’ve been unfair for a lot of people who wouldn’t have had a chance to give their best shot at trials,” Whitley said. “I just feel bad for a lot of people on the older side, where an extra year of training may not be best for them.”
Whitley was a sophomore at Cal. The Golden Bears won the 2019 NCAA swimming and diving championships and were positioned to make another run this year. Whitley was a big part of those plans, and he also had goals of making it to Tokyo.
He first came to national prominence in 2015 as a 15-year-old at Penn Charter, when his swimming prowess got him named 2015 Sports Illustrated Kids’ SportsKid of the Year. He became a two-time national high school swimmer of the year and set 23 national age group records between high school and at the Penn Charter Aquatic Club.
Now, he’s diving into a smaller pool of history. A list that is shallow, with just two prominent names that have risen only in recent years. Cullen Jones became the first African American to hold a world record, in 2006. Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win an individual swimming medal at the Olympics, in 2016.
Whitley appears to be next in line.
“It’s a privilege to swim at this level regardless of race,” Whitley said. “I’m in a great position where I can build off of the momentum from past elite black swimmers like Cullen Jones, and the current ones like Simone Manuel. The best part about my position is that I’m not in it by myself. There are more elite black swimmers that are my age and younger that you’ll definitely know about by 2021 or 2024.”
Much was expected of Whitley when he went to Cal, but he delivered quickly by being named PAC-12 swimming freshman of the year during Cal’s NCAA title run. He won PAC-12 titles on Cal’s 400 and 200 medley relay teams.
His dominance starts in the classroom. Whitley was named to the PAC-12’s winter academic honor roll. He also interned last year with one of the best money management investment firms in the country.
“We could certainly challenge him in the pool with the level of athletes we’re putting around him, but we also want to provide an environment to challenge his intellect and ambition,” said David Durden, Cal’s men’s swimming coach.
It’s a privilege to swim at this level regardless of race. I’m in a great position where I can build off of the momentum from past elite black swimmers like Cullen Jones, and the current ones like Simone Manuel.
Standing at 6-foot-9 and weighing 245 pounds, Whitley passes the eye test. His length and strength have allowed him to put up some of the top times in the country in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. He finished in the top five in both events at the 2019 NCAA championships and swept the field at the 2020 PAC-12 championships.
A dominant 2020 campaign was leading toward an opportunity to make the Olympic team. The U.S. Olympic trials were scheduled for June 21-28, but they were rescheduled because of the pandemic.
Both breaststroke fields are stacked, with 105 men qualifying for the 100 and 88 for the 200. Whitley finished as a semifinalist in the 2016 trials before Rio, but that was before he got to Cal. The U.S. swim team is coached by Cal’s Durden.
“The breaststroke events are always one of those events that are so open,” Durden said. “The breaststroke has probably the most variability in terms of the personnel that are on those teams. He was in a spot where he could’ve impacted our U.S. Olympic team, and then obviously impacted the Olympic podium.”
The postponement has its positives and negatives. Whitley’s youthfulness is an advantage over aging competitors who are inching closer to their finish lines. Another year of training will only help his chances, Durden said.
Early in his sophomore season, Whitley had the second-best time in the NCAA at 100 meters (50.85) and the best time by nearly two seconds in the 200 breast (1:49.85). Both times were improvements from his freshman season.
“I don’t think I’ve hit my peak by any means,” Whitley said. “I think I have a lot of things to work on. It gives me another year to get stronger, better, and wiser. I know I’m going to be better, but a lot of other guys are going to be better, too.”
Whitley isn’t able to get much pool time during the pandemic, but Durden is emphasizing the importance of land drills that will help him and his teammates improve.
The U.S. Olympic trials are rescheduled for June 13-20 in 2021 at the CHI Health Center Omaha, in Omaha, Neb. The Olympics will happen a month later, July 23-Aug. 8, 2021.
There’s a reason the decision to postpone the Olympics didn’t break Whitley’s spirit. He’s getting better and wiser and garnering the strength to extend the success of African American swimmers.
“The fact that people still ask that question to me shows that there’s work to be done in terms of integrating the sport in minority communities,” Whitley said. “I’m excited to take that challenge head-on with my fellow black swimmers that represent the U.S. national and junior national teams alike.”
Durden calls Whitley’s “larger than life” personality an asset, and if he makes the same improvements from year two to three, he will have a strong chance to qualify for Tokyo in 2021.
“I’m not looking to change anything,” Whitley said. “I felt like I was in a really good spot. This isn’t a restart or reset, it’s just a continuation. The ball keeps rolling.”