As a 6-foot-9 African-American male in a basketball-crazy city like Philadelphia, Reese Whitley is used to the stares on deck and questions on the street.
“What position do you play? Forward?”
His stock response is that he used to play basketball – and was quite good – but swimming was his first and constant love.
“Oh, you’re a swimmer?”
He said he’s sure he gets that reaction not just because of his race but also because of his height.
And while it was somewhat uncomfortable when he was younger, it’s become something that he’s embraced and uses to raise the profile of the sport he loves.
“It’s a natural question most tall people get, and being black, it’s even more unexpected when I say I swim,” he said. “It used to bother me, but now I kind of like the attention I get. I’ve always been a tall drink of water.”
The future University of California-Berkeley Bear got his start in swimming when he failed a deep-water swim test during summer camp while in elementary school.
Shortly after that, his parents signed him up for lessons, and it wasn’t much longer than he was having fun in the water, making friends and swimming fast at his local club.
He excelled in all four strokes as a youngster, but eventually decided to focus on breaststroke. At the same time, he played basketball and baseball through junior high.
In high school, he gave up his other sports interests to focus on swimming, and despite seeing one of his former basketball teammates recently sign to play for Duke as one of the top recruits in the nation (and a potential future NBA star), Whitley said he’s never second-guessed his decision.
“I’ve always loved swimming, and even though I also enjoyed basketball and baseball, swimming always came first,” said Whitley, considered to be the top-ranked swim recruit in the nation. “I’m happy for my former teammate (Cameron Reddish), but I’ve always been taught you make more money owning the team than playing on it.
“I know I won’t get rich swimming, but I know my education will take me beyond that.”
Originally a backstroker – which makes sense considering his height and wingspan – Whitley said he made the switch to breast despite it being a more challenging stroke for his height.
While swimming at a meet in high school, he swam a fast 50 breast and his coach, Crystal Coleman, convinced him to make the switch.
With his college decision made – Whitley said he chose Cal for its academic reputation but mostly because he knows Head Coach Dave Durden and his staff will help him realize his full potential – he said he has been able to focus on completing school and preparing for this summer’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
He understands the importance and gravity of swimming well as this meet because it sets the tone for international competition this summer and next by choosing the Pan Pacific (2018) and World Championship (2019) teams leading up to Olympic Trials in 2020.
Ever since he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids in 2015 – heralded as a future star of the sport – Whitley said he’s felt pressure to swim fast and win.
Early on, he said it messed with his head, and subconsciously he became obsessed with what it all represented and his role as and expectations of being an African-American swimmer.
With a couple years separating him from that time and with age and maturity on his side, he’s embraced that experience and come out on the other side better for having persevered.
“I definitely believe that experiencing what I did has prepared me better for what’s to come,” he said. “Right now, my focus is on achieving everything I want in the sport and disregarding what other people expect. I can only control what I think, and I know my expectations are pretty high. They always have been and always will be.
“My parents, who have always been tremendous supporters of my swimming and everything I’ve wanted to do, have been great help as I worked through everything. I owe them so much. I want to achieve for them as much as I do for myself.”
The bottom line for Reece Whitley the swimmer is that he knows he’s blessed with a special gift and talent, and he knows he has more to accomplish in the pool – and prove to himself.
“I guess I’m what you might call a power forward – the position I played in basketball – in the water,” said Whitley, who plans to study business at Cal. “I’m always about pushing forward toward my goals.
“I’ve been lucky enough to swim and watch Michael Phelps change the sport in so many different ways. Now it’s my turn to do the same with my talent and all of my other qualities. I want to inspire people and change the lives of others through the sport however I can and however I’m needed to.”