Reece Whitley: 2020 Was ‘The Fastest NCAAs that Nobody Ever Saw’

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Reece Whitley leads the Cal cheers at the 2019 NCAA Championships. Photo Courtesy: Dan D'Addona

Reece Whitley, like the rest of the Cal swimmers — and swim fans around the country — were looking forward to a showdown with Texas.

The two teams had put up head-turning performances all season, which looked to culminate into one of the best head-to-head showdowns in the history of the NCAA Championships.

Now, just like the Olympics, it will have to wait a year.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before, so it is tough for everybody,” Reece Whitley told Swimming World. “It has been hard on everybody. When we were allowed to hang out in groups, we did that and tried to stay close. At the end of the day, it is making sure the guys you are closest to are OK. I think both teams were ready to do something that the swimming world hasn’t seen before. With it being an Olympic year, we were on a roll. We had some dogs who were chomping at the bit. Dave (Durden) had us on a leash and we were ready to break loose.

“It will be the fastest NCAAs that nobody every saw.”

Like most teams, the Golden Bears are disappointed, but understand what needed to be done. But again, like most teams, Cal has some strong seniors that will not get to be part of that next chapter of NCAA history.

“I was pretty beat up. We had something to prove. It is not a secret to say a lot of our guys were chasing individual titles as well,” Whitley said. “I really feel for the seniors, especially Zheng Quah. He was just sick at Pac-12s. There was a lot left on the table.”

The same goes for Whitley, who was looking like someone who could challenge the NCAA records in the breaststroke events. He was the top seed in the 200 breast (1:49.85) and second in the 100 (50.85).

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Reece Whitley celebrating at the 2019 US Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Durden had to quickly rally the troops.

“Dave is one of the most caring people I have ever met,” Whitley said. “He is willing to go to hell and back for our guys. That trust that I have and that bond he has with the team, we know he feels for us, but now it is on trials.”

And now, those trials are pushed back another year for the 2021 Olympics.

Whitley will try to use the extra motivation to fuel his run toward what would be his first USA senior team.

“Part of what makes USA Swimming so great is that American swimmers are known for being even better after getting knocked down in a big way,” Reece Whitley said. “I am excited to see what my fellow athletes are able to put together with the challenge that lies ahead of them, and the amazing things that will happen in 2021.”

That is true for Whitley, too, especially after having a breakout performance in 2019, earning his first national championship. He said just being a part of Cal’s program helped with that.

“I think bigger stages make us more excited. Those are the kind of guys Dave recruits. We have a team so focused on success individually and for each other. They don’t become nerve-wracking, they become more fun. We have really strong mental guys, which is what helped things go so well last year. We were mentally tough. We all know how to handle our business in big environments.”

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Reece Whitley; Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

That wasn’t always the case for Whitley.

As a tall, lanky teenager with a lot of hype, he competed at the 2016 trials. In 2015, he was named the Sports Kid of the Year by Sports Illustrated. He had set many national age group records. In the next few years following 2016, he was a two-time national high school swimmer of the year, and was thought of as a star for the future.

All of this attention while he was still in high school trying to live a normal life in Pennsylvania.

“I was way younger than I thought I was in 16.  No 16-year-old can ever really be ready for something like that,” he said of the Olympic Trials. “I made it back to semis in both but tanked.  That makes me appreciate young talents like Regan Smith even more and Katie (Ledecky) back when she did it.

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Reece Whitley on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2015. Photo Courtesy: Sports Illustrated

“There was a lot of noise coming my way in 2016. I got a lot of media attention and I didn’t know the mental strain that it could have. So quite frankly, I wasn’t ready for trials.  Making semis was a blessing and I have that night swim experience. This time, I don’t have any noise.”

Four years later — well, five years later — Whitley is at a completely different place heading into the 2021 trials.

“I have learned how to chill out. That is what I needed. Contrary to popular belief, I feel like our team is the most chill on the pool deck. We can get intense when we need to,” he said. “My nerves aren’t as high. I know how to translate that a lot better than I did before. Self-composure is something that is common in every person that makes the Olympic team.”

Whitley won the 200-meter breaststroke at U.S. nationals this summer, which was a huge stepping stone for someone with big goals.

“Getting into that environment with everything from walking out to finals and composing yourself, it was really all a first for me. I had never been in a nationals A final before,” Reece Whitley said. “That was the first step that was most important. It taught me how to race. You have to learn how to win, which is huge. It was good to get my hand on the wall first. I am not going to achieve anything I want to in this sport if I can’t do that on a big stage.”

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