In a league of his own, Penn Charter freshman swimmer dreams of the Olympics


Reece Whitley has been floating at the end of lane four for what feels like an eternity.

His competition during this home swim meet is still barreling towards the finish line. Some have half the pool to cover. 

It’s a not-so-unfamiliar sight for the 6’7″ freshman at the William Penn Charter School in Northwest Philadelphia.

Whether he’s competing for his high school or club team, Whitley, 15, wins a lot — sometimes by a mile.

“He lost the 100 [butter]fly at Hill School to a post-grad who is taking a year between high school and college, a kid who signed at Penn State. You know, a 19 year old,” said Brian Hecker, Penn Charter’s head coach.

Gold medal goals

Not surprisingly, Whitley has dreams of swimming in the Olympics.

They’re not the pipe variety.

He already has a stack of national age-group records. This summer, he qualified for the junior national team, a collection of the country’s best 18-and-under swimmers, who, like Whitley, have gold medal aspirations.

His coaches say the 2016 games in Rio are likely a stretch, but by no means out of the question.

“The best part about him is that he’s been good and he just keeps getting better,” said Crystal Keelan, who leads the Penn Charter Aquatics Club. “You’ll see a lot of good swimmers and they hit that plateau and he just has not plateaued yet.”

A solo sport

Whitley started swimming when he was seven. A year or so later, he had fallen in love with the sport and starting competing.

He was playing basketball and baseball then — and well. But swimming’s solo nature spoke to him in a way the other two sports obviously couldn’t.

“It’s all you and there’s no ‘oh he didn’t play right today,’ ‘I held back my team today,'” said Whitley. “It’s either you hold back yourself or you perform the way you want to perform.”

Three years later, Whitley was completely devoted to the pool, a move his friends — even strangers — have questioned at one time or another.

“You must play basketball,” they say.

“In my head I’m like ‘If you only you saw me swim,” said Whitley, laughing.

Keeping busy

The fun-loving teen now trains and competes year-round, at times swimming before and after school.

He doesn’t see any of it as a drag, but time that helps him be a strong competitor.

And active. He’s never been much for sitting around.

“He was the kind of kid that went from getting out of day care to literally getting out of the car and getting on a bike or jumping on a skateboard or being outside,” said Kim Smith-Whitley, Reece’s mom.

Over the years, that well of energy hasn’t faded, but fueled this young athlete’s unwavering dedication and tireless pursuit of greatness.

Whitley regularly watches “game” tape and constantly — constantly — asks questions at every stage of the process.

“He’s mature in his practice mentality as well as his race mentality and that’s something you don’t see from high school swimmers in general, let alone a 15 year old.” said Hecker.

It’s all turned him into the kind of swimmer that make it clear, even to the uninitiated, that he’s got next-level skills.

He’s fast, smooth, deliberate.

Staying humble

Whitley, however, is not a hot shot.

Bragging, trash talking (yes, there’s trash talking in swimming), it’s just not his style. He’s much more comfortable being one of the guys.

“One of my largest pet peeves is cocky people,” he said. “I think being as modest as possible is actually the key to staying sane and not getting out of whack and saying things that you could say.”

But Penn Charter also takes its Quaker roots seriously. Even if Whitley were the chest-puffing type, it wouldn’t go over well, especially with his teammates.

“The saying is everyone has an inner light and that’s kind of cheesy but it’s true. Everyone holds the same weight. No one is looked up to as some superstar,” said senior Ben Skinner, captain of Penn Charter’s swimming squad.

And in Whitley’s case, it kind of goes without saying that he’s a special talent.

One whose star his coaches say has yet to burn its brightest.

In the meantime, he’ll continue to train hard for the next rung that lifts him closer to his Olympic dreams.

This summer, that means qualifying for the junior world championships in Singapore.

“We need to make small steps,” said Whitley. “The Olympics is the largest meet anybody can go to.”

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