Reece Whitley – Cal Swimming

“My swim career originally started out as a failed deep-water test at summer camp. The guy that failed me actually ended up being my first primary coach in club swimming. His name was Paul and I broke my first individual national age group record under him when I was 12. I was 6’ 3” back then, so I was only good at first because I was a big kid. By the time I was 13 we really dialed in and set some pretty big goals. By age 15, representing Team USA at the highest level became my dream.”

“A defining moment in my career was having a miserable performance at the Olympic Trials in 2016. I was truly star-struck by the setting and a bit overwhelmed with unexpected media attention beforehand.  At the time, I hadn’t raced at a meet where everyone was that much better than me. I’m in the ready room with guys that are breaking American records left and right. It was intimidating – the lights, the crowd, the whole nine. I definitely wasn’t ready for it, but in that moment of struggle, I told myself ‘Alright, this isn’t really fun and games anymore. If you want to stick with it and see this through, you’re going to have to get through pitfalls like these.’”

“If I had to do my life over again, Cal is the only place I would be. My teammates mean everything to me. The guys will be there for me anytime I need them, but will challenge me to become a better person inside and outside of the pool. From age 12 to 18 I didn’t train with anybody that was faster than me. Now, I’m tossed in an environment with reigning Olympic medalists in each of the four strokes and a load of undergraduates trying to follow their footsteps. It’s an incredibly unique space that I’m honored to be a small part of.”

“My journey is very much out there for people to see, but what many don’t realize about being a Black man in the sport of swimming is that the journey is tougher than it appears on the surface. Walking on a pool deck and not seeing a single other person that looks like you is isolating, particularly when you know the history around segregation in swimming at local pools. I think that if I hadn’t been faced with that situation and others like it, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am now. This has forced me to be more mature and more aware. My experience is my own, but I would imagine that many other Black athletes have similar opinions.”

“Until May, I thought I knew what it was like to deal with social injustice and the climate of race relations in our country. I thought I knew how to handle implicit and explicit racism on a pool deck, but in real time, I was in a low place emotionally. I didn’t know what to do. When George Floyd died, and the country was on fire, people were reacting in all kinds of ways. In the swimming space, because there are so few Black athletes, there was an expectation for me to open up about my experiences and to speak with insight and authority. I did not know how to deal with this at first. It was tough. In the end, my coaches, teammates, and friends eased the pressure. They put me in a position where I could share my experiences, speak my mind and potentially help others find similar success in their social spaces. Once I helped myself, then I could work to help others find similar breakthroughs in personal growth in their respective social environments.”

“I think I’m finally at a point where I can use my voice in a way that helps others. No one is an expert on social injustice and the multiple chasms that divide America at this time. Because of the compassionate listeners I’ve had as an example, I’ve found that it’s best for me to help others find a way for change on their own terms. Through this I can recognize that I’ve changed – even in my actions and the way I provide support to others. When I see something about LGBTQ+ lives on Instagram, I’m going to read it and educate myself. The same goes for protecting women and many others from domestic violence and human trafficking. These are topics I know more about now than I did a few months ago, and continue to educate myself on when presented the opportunity. It’s helped me appreciate my parents through their journeys as African-Americans and so many others with influential roles in my life even more.”

“My advice to younger athletes would be to invest in yourself. Be a little selfish. Prioritize your mental health and personal feelings.  Say when you’re uncomfortable. Say when something is not right because you’re only helping yourself in those situations. No matter if it’s a tough call, no matter if it breaks off some relationships, go out and do what is going to make you successful. I think that is the best advice I can offer.”

“I’ll always be proud to represent my country. There’s nothing like being on a team USA relay. It’s so easy to dial in and get focused when you’re swimming for something that’s 1,000 times bigger than anything you could ever comprehend. I love representing the USA – no matter the present state of our country. I know that my ancestors, my Black ancestors, helped build the foundation for this country and for what it is today. So, I’ll always be proud to represent Team USA because I know who laid the groundwork.”

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