In Part II this week, Reece Whitley explains why he’s excited about what’s next. But he also takes us back to what was a very special time at World Juniors, and how much he enjoyed his roommate -- in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You have been asked a lot about Cal, but what about going to a politically open college like that -- was that important to you?
Reece: That’s a bonus. Obviously. it’s great to go to school in a very open place. That’s something I was also looking for. All the schools I looked at were relatively open places. Berkeley is incredibly open and that makes for a very healthy environment to lean in. I also have heard they have (laughs) great food locally, great culture, and of course it’s a great academic unviersity.
2. You and Penn Charter Coach Crystal Coleman were very careful about not adding dryland too fast since you were still growing, now that you are old and filling out, are you looking forward to adding that at Cal now that your body is more ready for it?
Reece: Yes, definitely. Joel (Smith), who is the strength coach for Cal swimming, is a very, very smart guy. I’ve been fortunate because my high school strength coach, John (Estok) is like that and really smart about giving everybody what they need because there are so many different athletes that you get. So that has been great. Next (school) year, making that transition will be great. I’ve yet to have a dialogue with Joel but can’t wait to get to work on that.
3. Your parents are both doctors -- how impressive is it that while they offered as much or as little help as you wanted, that they emphasized this was your decision?
Reece: That’s the way they have been my entire life. They have guided me and given me information and insight that I’ll never be able to repay them for. I knew from the beignning that it was my decision. Like they always have, they provided some lessons and ways of thinking throughout the process, but they were removed enough to let me do my own thing. They expected me to work out the phone calls and communication, and to seek out what I really wanted in a program -- they trusted me to do that. All I did was update them now and then. So when it came time to commit, I had weighed all the pros and cons in a way that emphasized what was important to me.
4. As well as your 100 breaststroke went 10 days ago for the national high school record, it seems like that bodes even better for your 200 -- is that accurate?
Reece: I hope so. I’m excited for the 200. I don’t think I’ll rest for another short course meet this season, so hopefully the next time I do that (100 breaststroke short course) is NCAAs. I don’t focus on the 100 in training as much -- most of that comes from the 200 training I do. So I hope to see more improvement in the 200, and I think you will see that more in my long course.
5. You have all silvers in your international performances -- that’s pretty awesome to have medaled in so many big meet opportunities, isn’t it?
Reece: It is of course absolutely an honor. This summer it hurt not having an individual gold. It was still a great summer and not everything can go perfectly. But that kind of sets the motivation and the tone for this whole year. I really don’t like being beat, especially when it’s kids my age (at World Juniors), that gives me (laughs) a bit of an attitude! But I thrive with that chip on my own shoulder, and that is pretty much what’s driven me this whole season.
6. How did 2016 Olympic Trials help you?
Reece: Yes, for sure. Trials was a complete learning experience. Now that I’m almost two years removed from that I almost think (it was) good for me not to do as well as I had hoped -- as crazy at that sounds now. But I was pretty young at that time -- 16 is kind of when people are most naive, but at least I was competitive.
7. More on that please -- why you felt it was maybe better off with how things went?
Reece: Everything was going so well for me, coming off being on the Sports Illustrated cover, I had a good summer in 2015… so Olympic Trials was a huge reality check for me as a person. It changed me as a swimmer and as a person. Humbled me to a point where I can appreciate the work that has to be done at that high level, and then not just stay there but improve.
8. So this year and even last year puts you back on track?
Reece: If Trials were tomorrow I wouldn’t be ready. I’m not there yet. But 2020 after a couple years at Cal? I think I’ll be in a better position and mindset, certainly, than I had in 2016 when I was a teenager..
9. I think I’m the only one who doesn’t enjoy Olympic Trials -- I am certainly happy for all those who make it, but the heartbreak is so rampant, I’m just not built for it -- or does that make sense?
Reece: It is brutal. It’s a roller coaster. It is the meet of tears, both happy and sad. Olympic Trials is truly an experience. Competing in it is a whole lot different than any meet out there.
10. It’s like the longest and steepest part of the climb to a penultimate summit before a shorter, maybe more reachable summit -- just so much emotion, yet what a shaping experience, isn’t it?
Reece: There’s really nothing like Olympic Trials. Swimmers are made, or built, through their experience there. Those who make the team, and especially those who make it as a young age...it’s such a testament to mental strength.
11. Pretty awesome to turn it around last summer during what was an insanely exciting 2017 World Trials and make it?
Reece: Summer Nationals aren’t as big but the field was just incredible. What was great was seeing people like Regan Smith make the team -- what mental toughness. And to get to see her swim in Budapest, and then swim with her last summer at World Juniors, was just incredible. Again, someone stepping up in the moment.
12. You had a great personality in your roommate Carson Foster, and everyone marveled at what a cool match you too were -- what was that like at World Juniors?
Reece: First of all, he’s such a talented and hard-working swimmer. Carson has always been in the mix, from the time I first heard about him. He’s been great for so long, breaking 10 and under records. I knew who he was, though he wasn’t really on my radar until last summer; I knew a lot of the others, like Michael Andrew, but with Carson and the group of teenagers coming it’s just another case where it’s “next kid up” because someone great is on the way. Carson has just become even more incredible.
13. How do you rate him as a roommate?
Reece: He either is or recently turned 16, so he’s a little young. Rooming with him was so cool because he reminded me of myself in the same position in Singapore (at World Juniors in 2016) where I found myself swimming with a bunch of older guys. So it was the same thing for Carson this time around. To see him win that silver medal going against (Spain’s) Hugo Gonzalez (now at Auburn) who is blowing it up right now. Just an incredible meet for Carson, and it’ll be fun to see the team he makes in the future -- because he is the future, and such a great person as well.
14. How about your Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl -- what did that do for you?
Reece: The whole season has been really fun to watch. It’s crazy how the whole city can be unified by sports. That’s what I learned from the Phillies World Series in 2008, though I was so young then I didn’t have any idea how big it was. To see it now at 18 and the unity it can bring is so amazing for a city.
15. What struck you about the mood of the Eagles?
Reece: That they were having fun and playing for each other. And they are such a young team. You wonder what it’s like to be in a locker room with a group like that, guys who are just ready to go and play in the Super Bowl and who believe in themselves as group -- all believed in each other.
16. You set a big record to end your Penn Charter career recently, how long do you celebrate that?
Reece: The most important thing relatively speaking for success is not getting stuck on it for too long, just like you wouldn’t get stuck on a failure. You learn from both of them -- both are great at teaching you, especially if you come up short -- and you move forward. I usually kick back the day after a big meet, have a burger, so something fun, and then get ready to work again. That (record-setting) race was nowhere near a perfect race. We’ll get into video and see what needs to be fixed.
17. You mentioned your friendship with Simone Manuel as a key, how does she help you?
Reece: I was going up against (Italian breaststroker) Nicolo Martinenghi, who has been having a great two years and just killing it to take junior breaststroke to a new level. Racing him, I knew he was by far the favorite. I asked Simone, what do I need to do to get composed here. Because she did that last summer. So I asked her straight up, “What did you do?” I couldn’t get my mind to where I wasn’t counting myself out. I won’t get into specifics because those are hers to share publicly only if she wants to, but she told me everything about how she handled herself from the moment prelims ended. It was nice to hear her thought process and it helped me a lot.
18. And you in turn at World Juniors and this season at Penn Charter are that person others look to -- what’s that like?
Reece: I think it’s definitely a part of who I have become over time -- wanting to help others. We’re all representing Team USA and we’re all part of the same thing at the end of the day.
19. You have done that with all kinds of swimmers haven’t you, probably more so as such a role model and well known figure in the push for diversity?
Reece: Yes, and I often do talk to black swimmers, but not only black swimmers -- any young swimmer in general who is on the rise, oftentimes kids who aren’t on anyone’s radar. Back when I started, no one was worried about me. I’d be reading about other people and think at the end of the day, “I stink.’’ So I remember that when I see a swimmer who is really passionate about the sport, because those interactions can inspire more than any medal or time you post.
20. You mentioned working with black swimmers -- what does it mean to you now to see more minority athletes at the meets you go to?Reece: It is definitely going in the right direction but I definitely think the job isn’t done. It’s interesting over the last few years how less and less I hear, “Wow, you’re a black swimmer!” That was kind of hard for a 13-year-old to deal with. I am glad to see so many black swimmers and other minority backgrounds knocking it out of the park and doing well for the country in swimming. I take as much pride in watching it now as anyone.