What a weekend for Reece Whitley. The World Junior Championship medalist and future Cal swimmer went to Easterns for the last time as a Penn Charter swimmer and was locked in a battle for the national 100 breaststroke record. Whitley came away with it, and while he was proud to end his career on a high note -- the Penn Charter women won the title -- he says he has a lot of work to do. He talks about that, and why swimming can be proud during Black History Month because of its diversity, in this first of a two-part 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What was Saturday night like, going back and forth with Max McHugh for the 100 breaststroke independent and public and overall high school record, who was at another meet when you two were breaking each other’s record?
Reece: What was it like? Well, Saturday was really fun and the whole weekend was really exciting!
2. Your 200 IM is still improving, and you seem to be improving, is that right?
Reece: Actually, it was a rough 200 IM. I know there is a lot more in the tank. The first day jitters in that race got to me.
3. What do you mean?
Reece: I don’t know if I felt the greatest on that day. The 200 IM was hard to swallow. I was able to ride the momentum the girls team had and have a better attitude moving past that and getting refocused.
4. How cool though to have that meet have such national appeal as you battled for the record, isn’t it?
Reece: Having that record broken (by Max) on the same night I didn’t have my best swim was something that made me think. So, the whole next morning I was focused. I didn’t really talk to anybody at breakfast, I was zeroed in. I knew that morning, that by the end of the day, I had to make something happen.
5. So in your last shot at the 100 breaststroke, you were all in?
Reece: I had to go after it, I knew in my last high school swim I had to get this record. I’m happy it worked out. But then you look at it in context, my 51.1, where Caeleb Dressel is doing what he is doing (the American and NCAA record, 50.03, for the University of Florida at SECs), and it’s like, wow, just out of the blue he can go that fast. So impressive.
6. I didn’t have anything prepped to ask you about on Caeleb when this all broke -- how much did you learn from his swim?
Reece: What Caeleb taught me is that I can never, and no one, can ever underestimate him. I was, being a swim geek, figured he’d be around 51, but 50.0 is amazing, especially with him not being rested! And it’s even more impressive because I know those Florida guys put in a lot of work.
7. So you were excited for him?
Reece: Oh, absolutely yes, Caeleb is incredible. It’s great to see Caeleb breaking barriers like that. I’m fortunate to grow up in the same era as Caeleb -- I have followed him since he was a high schooler, since he was younger than I am now. It’s fun to see him step up and take the reins as the best swimmer in this (post-Michael Phelps) era..
8. How does he do it?
Reece: Caeleb is just stronger than everyone else, and his desire and determination. It’s plain and simple. The way his body is built, it’s the perfect swimmer body, not an overly big lower body but a whole lot of power in his legs, and his core and upper body is unparalleled as well. Put that together with a guy who sets high goals and has that drive, and you have Caeleb Dressel.
9. You knew a little about Caeleb from somewhere else, right?
Reece: One of the coaches I had back in camp days was Jason Calanog (now at Texas A&M), who coached Caeleb back at Bolles, and he would tell us these incredible stories about what Caeleb did in practice, and what type of trainer he was. So, everything that Caeleb is doing now isn’t surprising. It’s really cool to see it all come together for him now, and yet even though he was great at the Olympics and dominated at Worlds, he is so good that it’s only the beginning.
10. You went out in your 100 breast record in 24.83, your slowest opening 50 time of the swims, but came home blazing with your first sub 27 last 50, was that something you trained and planned to race that way?
Reece: I don’t think (laughs) it’s something we worked on. I think it drives (Coach) Crystal (Coleman) crazy and kind of nervous, actually, when I started like that!
11. How did you bring it in the last 50 like that?
Reece: For me, I don’t know, really, how to describe it. It’s just me putting the blinders on no matter what position I am in and giving it everything I have. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the front 50 to complement it -- that’ll come in due time. But to finish like that for the record means a lot.
12. You are going to Cal with Dave Durden. Do you see yourself working on your IM there?
Reece: Oh yes, of course. For Crystal, the basis of our program is IM training. So ever since I was a pretty young kid I’ve always trained IM. Now that my body is (laughs) finally filling out a little bit, I am getting a better feel on how to swim these other strokes. Everything is kind of falling into place and I am beginning to put together a good IM.
13. Dave’s a great communicator, so you two go in on the same page, right?
Reece: Yes, in fact when I committed (to Cal), Dave told me I would not just swim the breaststroke, that there will be a lot more than that. And that is something that sold me on the program, knowing he doesn’t want to limit what I can do in the other strokes, especially since i hope to bring my IM down.
14. Nice to have the recruiting process over?
Reece: Yes, but for me, it really was a great experience. The coaches I talked to are just phenomenal people, Eddie Reese (at Texas) and Gregg Troy and Steve (Jungbluth) at Florida -- they were all so great throughout the process.
15. All great schools and great locations -- good choices, one and all. But seeing how comfortable you are with Cal, it’s nice to have that done and feel good about it, isn’t it?
Reece: I really do feel like I’ll fit in with the team at Cal, it was very comfortable with the guys there -- though it was certainly great atmospheres and teams at the other schools. Cal just seemed like a perfect fit. They train as hard as anyone and I felt really comfortable with Dave. I also know how hard they work at the other schools and the great results and people they have speaks for the commitment and results, just great programs.
16. It’s funny because the Cal guys explained everything to me from which math courses my kid should take to get ready in college to how to fix my cell phone and the engineering behind it that caused the problem -- a pretty unique bunch, aren’t they?
Reece: It is incredible to see what so many of the guys on the team are studying and the difference they hope to make in life with their careers. All of them are the really smart kind of thinkers that you just described. I felt like I look at the world a lot like they do. I don’t think Dave would have someone on the team who didn’t have that kind of mindset -- who doesn’t understand how important it is to put school before swimming. I take my goals very seriously and I got the feeling those guys have that attitude. Again though, there were guys like that at the other schools and I was humbled to meet all those incredible people, too.
17. And if you want to work on your IM’s backstroke, you can just work with the best in the world in Ryan Murphy, right?
Reece: For sure, Murph’s going to whoop me in the IM workouts, and it’ll take (laughs) a while to do a sprint backstroke set with him. But I’m really excited to be a sponge. There are a lot of resources at Cal. Being here with Crystal has been great, but it’s only kind of been her and I, and we learn from people far away. So being in a place with more information and resources will be a great opportunity for which I am grateful.
18. Kind of a weird deal to think of life without Crystal and how much she invested in your career, how wonderfully she and your parents worked together, but nice to get into a “full-service” big-time college program, right?
Reece: I am super thankful for Crystal investing so much time to make it work. Next year, it is going to be great to have all the resources to improve as a swimmer in the same place. Getting a great college coach who has been there and done that internationally, and as great a group of guys as there is anywhere, provides me with a great opportunity. All those guys have so much experience, in swimming and in the classroom and in life, and they mentor the younger guys. I am going to be like a little boy (laughs) at first out there.
19. What a two years for diversity in the sport, Lia Neal’s making history as the first African American woman to medal in two Olympics, and Simone Manuel at Worlds just owning it and rising again to the challenge -- you are closer in age and know Simone, does she inspire you and what does the diversity mean to you?
Reece: It shows me that we are on the rise. Simone’s accomplishments and consistency defeat all the stereotypes. I don’t know if there are enough of the right words for all that she has done.
20. And your parents are so rock solid, you look to them for your example -- so what does that kind of pioneering diversity do for you?
Reece: That’s a good point because I don’t find my inspiration from others -- I think you need to properly prepare to look within yourself to make such demands -- but Simone really did it for me. It’s just something about her pride and knowing what it does for all black swimmers continuing to move forward in the future. She’s carrying the torch from Maritza (McClendon) and Cullen (Jones) and bringing it into a new era and making it her own. It’s so cool to see her win the 100 free at two major meets -- I’m not sure everyone realizes how hard that is to do. And it’s even more incredible when Sarah Sjostrom was having a red-hot year. And then what does Simone do after Budapest? She comes back to Junior Worlds (in Indianapolis) and helps us all as a sort of National Team consultant. Just an incredible athlete, leader and role model.