The chair he sat in for an interview, the swimsuit he donned for practice, the Graham Activities Building pool he nearly crossed without surfacing, they all looked too small for Reece Whitley.
Though barely 15 – his birthday was earlier this month – Whitley is a 6-foot-8, 235-pound Penn Charter freshman, and when he mingles with swimming teammates, he looks more like their instructor than their peer.
In fact, these days the only thing that seems large enough to fit Whitley is his enormous promise.
“Reece’s potential is endless,” said Crystal Keelan, his Penn Charter Aquatic Club coach.
The Lafayette Hill resident already owns national age-group records for 13-14-year-old breaststrokers at 100 and 200 yards and at 100 and 200 meters. At 12, he became the youngest ever to break a minute for 100 yards, and since then he has lowered his time to 53.06 seconds.
So thoroughly has he beaten his competition and the clock that speculation already has begun about Whitley's earning an Olympic berth – perhaps as early as 2016.
“That’s a pretty big one,” Whitley said when asked if the next Olympics were in his sights. “But goals are goals and if the opportunity presents itself, then why not go after it?”
It’s certainly not far-fetched to imagine him in a Rio pool two summers from now. The American team desperately needs a breaststroke superstar. For all their success in other events, no U.S. man has won a breaststroking gold since 1992.
“When I made the Olympic team again in 2012, people were saying, ‘Isn’t that great,’ ”said Brendan Hansen, the Havertown breaststroker who is the only American male to have medaled in the discipline since 2000. “But I kept saying, ‘No, no it isn't. We need to develop some young talent [in breaststroke].’ Hopefully, Reece can be the one.”
For the last several years, setting national marks in primarily local and regional events, Whitley has been dominant. Now, as a 15-year-old, he'll move up a competitive level. This summer in San Antonio, Texas, he will swim at the U.S. Junior Nationals with an eye toward earning a spot on the American team that will travel to the World Junior Championships in Singapore.
“ That’s my short-term goal," he said.”
In the meantime, he’ll keep training 16 hours a week, before and after school and on weekends, as he swims for Penn Charter and the Penn Charter Aquatic Club.
“His technique is great and his size is certainly an advantage,” said Keelan. “If he needs to improve on anything, it’s probably to spend a little more time in the weight room. Even though he’s 235, he’s not all muscle … We really just started with weights this past September and this will continue to be a big focus in our training this spring and summer.”
An affable A student, Whitley is as thoughtful and laid-back as physically imposing. He is popular with teammates, and swimming seems to fit his easygoing personality.
“Reece isn't real aggressive," Keelan said. “People see his size and they ask why he isn't playing basketball here. Well, he used to, but the coach told me that he wasn't really aggressive enough to succeed. So he said to me, “You can have him.”
That was fine with Keelan – and Whitley. As much as he enjoyed basketball and baseball, swimming had something more attractive to offer. Because of its reliance on the clock, he could carefully assess every split, every turn, every race, and measure it against himself and others.
“Seeing those times drop is better than almost any accomplishment you can have,” he said. “I really like seeing progress. Just wanting to see the best of myself is what gets me into that water every day. I set goals, and I set about getting to those goals. And obviously the only way to do it is to get into the pool and work.”
How far and fast Whitley progresses will depend on how he transitions from the 25-yard, short-course pools he's used to, to the long-course, 50-meter pools that are the standard for national and international meets.
“His times are really great, four of five seconds faster than mine when I was his age,” said Hansen, who now is the swimming director at the Austin (Texas) Swim Club. “But he's so big and physically talented that right now against smaller opponents in smaller pools he has an advantage on the turns and the push-offs. He needs to keep working hard and make sure that as he gets older he does the same things in long-course.”
Whitley already has some impressive long-course experience, setting the 100- and 200-meter records for his age group in 50-meter pools.
“He’s a kid who’s going to break barriers,” said Andrew Seliskar, the 18-year-old Virginian who is one of America’s best young swimmers. “You can already tell he’s going to be the next big thing in breaststroke.”
Whitley’s rise in a sport not typically rich in African-American talent has been an unlikely one.
His mother is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, his father an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Temple Hospital. Neither were serious swimmers.
“I like being in the water and can handle myself,” said Dr. Carl Whitley, “but you would not want to see me freestyle.”
When their son was 7, they sent him to a summer day camp at Penn Charter. After he couldn’t pass a deep-water safety test there, the boy turned the failure into a personal challenge.
“I was definitely a 7-year-old that didn’t like to be told no. It wasn’t my type of word,”’ said Whitley.. “I went home and told my Mom. I said, ‘Mom, I flunked this deep-water test. Help me out.’ So she started getting me lessons.”
He was 8 when Michael Phelps, to whom his long-armed lankiness is often compared, won a record eight gold medals in 2008 at Beijing. Aware of Phelps' performance, he wasn't overwhelmed by it.
“At 8 I was a swimmer, but I wasn’t like a geek about it,” Whitley said. “So I wasn’t watching the Olympics. I didn’t really connect to it. I wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, that could be me one day.’ ”
At about that time, Whitley's mother, Kim Smith-Whitley, arranged a meeting with Cullen Jones, a successful African American swimmer who went on to win three medals at the 2012 London Games.
Ever since, Whitley said he’s been conscious of trying to persuade other black youngsters to take up swimming.
“I hope to do even more as my career goes on and I get more publicity,” he said.
As he progressed, regularly beating his personal bests, Whitley was drawn more to the pool than other sports venues. His ascension wasn't hurt by the fact that he was growing faster than his reputation.
Though three weeks premature, Whitley was 22 1/2 inches at birth. But his 6-2 father and 5-8 mother had little reason to suspect their child would be so physically precocious.
“My brothers and I are all about 6-2,” said Carl Whitley. “One of my female cousins who is 6-feet does have a son who is 6-9. So I guess there is that in the genes.”
He still trains in all the disciplines and is particularly accomplished in the Individual Medley – an event incorporating all four strokes. But the breaststroke – in which the swimmer’s arms remain under water – long ago assumed primacy.
“Breaststroke just kind of happened,” he said. “When I was around 10 I had success in one race and it all kind of took off. By the time I was 11 and 12 it was really my stroke.”
Now, at least in the pool, it seems all that is required for him to become an Olympian is continued growth. And growth has never been a problem.
“Size helps,” Whitley admitted. “If I was only 5-feet or so and had to swim against someone my size, I’d probably be like, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to race against that guy?’ ”
To view a video interview with Reece Whitley. visit: www.Philly.com/Whitley