Penn Charter’s Reece Whitley May Be America’s Next Olympic Star

The six-foot-six 14-year-old is one of the hottest young swimmers in the nation.

Whitley (with Coach Keelan) is fast enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympic trials. Photograph by Jared Castaldi

Whitley (with Coach Keelan) is fast enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympic trials. Photograph by Jared Castaldi

When the grueling pace of kindergarten life overwhelmed him, Reece Whitley would escape to the bathtub. Two hours of soaking soothed his tired mind and prepared him for another tough day of coloring and story time. Even if the water cooled or his skin pruned, Whitley stayed in. “I just liked the feel of the water,” he says.

Whitley still loves the life aquatic, although those restorative soaks have been replaced by punishing swimming workouts. The Penn Charter freshman is one of the hottest young swimmers in the nation, owning a stack of age-group records and already posting fast enough times in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke to qualify him for the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha. At this past summer’s Junior (18-and-under) National Championships, 14-year-old Whitley finished third in the 200 and won the 100-meter “B” final.

Over the past three years, Whitley has progressed from a boy for whom swimming was a fun diversion to a six-foot-six-inch sensation with unlimited potential. In August, he earned a spot in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section for setting national age-group records in the 100 and 200 breast at the Mid-Atlantic Championships. Next spring, he plans to compete in the USA Swimming Grand Prix series, which occasionally draws Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte to the pool. He does all this while maintaining a straight-A average — “No slip-ups,” he says.

“He’s going to continue to progress,” says Penn Charter Aquatic Club coach Crystal Keelan. “He’s going to be something special.”

Whitley was six when he started lessons at a swim club near his family’s Lafayette Hill home, but he also enjoyed other sports — “Baseball is his passion,” says his mother, Kim Smith-Whitley. And he continued growing at a head-turning pace. Whitley was 22 and a half inches long at birth — and was three weeks early. Whitley’s mom is a modest five-eight, and his dad is six-two, but family legend has it that a great-great-uncle was six-nine.

“I know if I were five feet tall and swimming against someone my size, I’d say, ‘Am I really about to race that guy?’” Whitley says, laughing.

After Whitley began working with Keelan, he started to flourish; at 12, he became the first American his age ever to break a minute in the 100-yard breaststroke. Though he’ll swim for Penn Charter this year, he has the chance to be an Olympian in ’16, and certainly by 2020.

“I think his potential is unlimited,” says Kathryn Scheuer, director of aquatics at Upper Dublin Aquatic Club. “The best thing he has going for him is his joy for the sport. That’s going to feed his desire to get better and to work to achieve his goals.”

When Whitley was eight or so, his mom took him to meet Olympian Cullen Jones, an encounter that has encouraged him to motivate other African-Americans to love the water as much as he does. “That’s something I’m trying to take on as my swim career moves ahead and I get more publicity,” he says.

Whitley remains humble and is popular with teammates and competitors. “He’s smart and friendly,” Keelan says. “Adults want to hang out with him, and kids of all ages want to be around him.” It’s nice to be liked. It’s nicer to win Olympic medals, and Whitley pushes himself hard in that direction. “He definitely has a competitive spirit,” his mother says. “Thanks to the Internet, he can compete with 14- and 15-year-olds from all over the world. There’s always someone behind him, pushing him virtually.” And unlikely to catch him.

Originally published as “Aquaman” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.