By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Friday, February 12, 2016
Reece Whitley is riding a wave.
His 2015 ended as the Sports Illustrated SportsKid of the Year. And his new year cranked up on the road to Olympic Trials with a trip to the Arena Pro Swim Series at Austin.So while he’s on the right road, he knows he has a lot of miles to travel.
“You know, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every bit of it, but I am just taking it as it comes,” Whitley said. “I’m not thinking too far into the future, but I’m not about living in the past. I want to experience and live in the moment. Good Morning America was so enjoyable -- that was a great time. But as soon as it ended, there were other challenges I needed to focus on.”
And though he’s proud of where he is, he understands what he already means to the sport as just a teenager carries some meaningful responsibility in which he takes great pride.
So the month of February holds a special place in Whitley’s heart, and life.
“Black History month to me is another time that these conversations can open up about history, who we are, where we have been, and where we are going,” Whitley said. “I am fortunate to be able to talk with my parents about that, and at school. Having those conversations -- we have those all the time, not only during this month -- and coming to greater understanding is important, going forward.”
While Whitley is gracious about the attention he gets, he quickly rattles off nearly a dozen names -- including Jack LeVant and Camden Murphy – who as African-American swimmers he says are lifting the entire tide in the swimming community.
“It’s not ever about just one person anymore,’’ Whitley said. “It’s about everyone who can contribute in some ways to bringing swimming into our communities, and help young people understand what a great opportunity and lifestyle this is -- how it can lead to such incredible opportunities in the future and how well it prepares you for life.”
Whitley is inspired by those out of the pool who led the way to opportunities by opening doors that were firmly locked for far too long in American, and world, history
“Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela -- they all contributed to progress,” Whitley said. “That took courage and sacrifice to contribute to history in the way they did.”
And though Cam Newton took some literal and media hits this weekend, Whitley said Newton is another example of progress.
“That’s not the exact way everyone will do it, but it is his way, and by staying true to yourself and being a real person, that protects you moving forward being it is who you are,” Whitley said. “The action of being involved and stepping up and staying with it is what leads to better integration, and the opportunities that come with that hard work. Not being quiet, but interacting with all the communities.”
Whitley is also passionate about noting the current group of African-American youth swimmers have as good a group of role models in history.
“Giles (Smith) is a great guy I love talking to, and Cullen is just great -- the most accomplished black swimmer on the planet right now,” Whitley said. “I was in Austin and saw him in the warm-up pool and he was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ Just a great role model for all swimmers, but certainly an inspiration for black swimmers as well.”
And he said female swimmers have just as amazing a group to look up to. While Maritza (Correia) McClendon carved the path into the new century, swimmers can look up to the likes of Simone Manuel, Lia Neal, and Natalie Hinds, who ironically made history last year by sweeping the podium at NCAAs. More than that, Whitley said swimmers can see all three young women came from different places. Hinds goes to college in Florida. Neal grew up in New York before heading to Stanford. And Manuel went from Texas to Stanford. Those career arcs, both in the water and academically, show what’s possible, Whitley said.
“It’s not about where you grow up or where you come from,” Whitley said. “It’s about getting safe in the water, and making the most of it. You see those superstars, from Giles to Cullen and Simone to Lia, and they are tremendous people first and foremost. So for them to continue achieving and opening doors is about who they are more than anything.”
And who they are, he notes, has everything to do with where they came from, and the choices they made.
“The group of people I have around me -- family, my teachers and coaches, friends, classmates, teammates -- that’s what has a big impact on me every single day,” Whitley said. “The more you surround yourself with people who demand the best of themselves, the better the atmosphere for you to achieve your potential and chase bigger goals.”
Though Austin didn’t go exactly like he wanted in terms of placings, he was pleasantly caught off guard to hear his name from excited fans at every turn, something he said is wonderful to get used to in the frenetic run-up to Olympic Trials.
“Things like that, especially when maybe you are a little disappointed with a swim, are really going to pick you up,” Whitley said. “Austin is a special city because they have so much support for swimming and really understand it. So that was nice.”