“I think as I get older …I’m going to need to take—play a key role in kind of integrating swimming into inner city communities a lot more.” – Reece Whitley
If you haven’t heard of Reece Whitley, it’s only a matter of time.
Towering at 6 foot-8, the 17-year-old swimmer who slices through water with record precision, could become the new face of the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 2020.
And that face is Black.
In a sport that is historically and overwhelmingly white, Whitley not only stands out because he is African-American, but he’s gaining respect and notoriety by smashing records in the pool since he was 13 years old.
“I kind of enjoy looking at people giving me weird looks,” Whitley told The New York Times. “I use it as motivation to get so fast it makes people freak out because I’m challenging their preconceptions.”
Whitley, who plans to attend The University of California, Berkeley, is one of the nation’s most exceptional recruits. He broke the national high school record this year in the breast stroke competition and his times, according to media reports, have been faster than many previous Olympians at the same age.
If he makes the U.S. Olympic team, Whitley would be a fresh face, a student who studies Mandarin Chinese, chemistry and algebra and by all accounts is a responsible young man.
I appreciate that Whitely embraces his blackness, challenges preconceptions, and wants to promote the sport of swimming in African-American communities.
More Black kids must learn to swim. According to a recent study by the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of African-American children can’t swim. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, Whitley’s historic African-American predecessor on the swimming stage, was a spokesman for Make A Splash an organization that helped make it easier for kids to swim.
Whitley could also inspire more Black kids to swim the way Venus and Serena Williams have encouraged more Black kids to play tennis.
Whitley would also be an earnest presence in a sport that could use a boost. Its highest profile athlete, and the most awarded Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, has retired.
Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte embarrassed the U.S. swim team and had to issue a public apology after a well-publicized event at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Last week, a Brazilian court dismissed the criminal case against Lochte, who had been charged with filing a false robbery report during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Lochte, a six-time Olympic gold medalist, was involved in a confrontation with security guards at a gas station and later admitted that he was drunk. He served a 10-month suspension from the U.S. national swim team for his behavior in Rio but was ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing.
Whitley doesn’t bring any drama to swimming. A native of Philadelphia, PA., Whitley loves playing basketball and baseball but is now a committed full-time swimmer. His parents are both doctors: his mother is a pediatrician, and his father is an ear, nose, and throat surgeon.
“The trials may be six months too early for him,” Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who is part of NBC’s Olympic swimming broadcasting team, told The New York Times.
“He’s going to be the best breaststroker in the world,” Gaines added. “I’ve never seen a breaststroker with his talent. It’s not even close.”
Later this month, Phelps, 32, will be back in the news for his swimming skills – but this time Phelps will be racing a Great White shark for the kickoff to Discovery’s annual weeklong event, Shark Week. The show, Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White, will be filmed off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.
It’s unclear exactly how Phelps will race a Great White shark in open water, but I guess that’s part of the promotional hype.
In the meantime, Whitley doesn’t have to race sharks for publicity: At 6-foot-8, the swift-swimming teen sensation already stands way above the pack.