Kaylin Whitney, the sprinter who celebrated her 17th birthday by announcing a professional contract with Nike on Monday, wants to make this summer’s World Championships team and, the following year, become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor in 40 years.
“We already know there’s going to be a lot of people saying there’s no way she’s going to make the Olympics, that this is a crazy decision or whatever,” said her Orlando-area coach, three-time U.S. Olympic sprinter Dennis Mitchell. “We don’t pay attention to it.”
Whitney views the decision as another step toward those goals.
“My ultimate dream is to make an Olympic team, so for me to do that, I’d have to take my training to the next level, which would translate to training in the morning and switching to online school to accommodate,” Whitney said.
The Clermont, Fla., native doesn’t appear to have taken a wrong turn yet. Her father, a former University of Arkansas runner, put Whitney in track after watching her smoke the competition in a school field day potato sack race as a kindergartener.
At age 8, she swept the 100m, 200m and long jump at the AAU Junior Olympics and was profiled by the Orlando Sentinel.
Whitney’s first memories of watching track and field came at age 10, when Usain Bolt broke the 100m and 200m world records at the Beijing Olympics.
Mitchell, whose wife is the 2008 Olympic 100m hurdler Damu Cherry, began coaching Whitney at age 12.
And last year, Whitney ran the fastest official 100m and 200m sprints by a woman under the age of 18 — 11.10 and 22.49 at the U.S. Junior Championships — putting her in the top 10 for U.S. women of any age for 2014. The top three in those events at U.S. Championships earn individual spots at the World Championships and Olympics.
She ran more “pedestrian times,” for her, Mitchell said, in taking 200m gold and 100m bronze at the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore., in July.
“Her love is the 200m,” Mitchell said, while acknowledging the 100m is the sport’s marquee event and thus also very important.
At World Juniors, Whitney had to adapt to bleaker Oregon weather and what Mitchell called stresses of international meets — running multiple rounds and living with new teammates rather than sleeping in her own bed.
“There’s a lot of things physically that she’s still going to come into, both as a woman and as an athlete,” Mitchell cautioned. “You have to let that process happen. We’re battling a lot of different things outside of trying to run a sub-11 100 meters.”
She’s not the first of her kind. Distance runners Mary Cain and Alexa Efraimson turned pro at 17 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Whitney’s transition is eased by familiarity with more experienced runners in Mitchell’s training group — Justin Gatlin, Churandy Martina, Charonda Williams and Alexandria Anderson among them.
“It’s definitely intimidating but encouraging at the same time,” Whitney said. “The sport’s evolving every year. Athletes are getting better.”
Whitney next plans to race in a couple of local meets and could be part of relay teams at the Texas Relays (March 25-28) and Drake Relays (April 22-26) or Penn Relays (April 23-25).
Mitchell said Whitney could compete individually at the Prefontaine Classic, a top-level international meet in Eugene, Ore., from May 29-30. Last year, reigning Olympic 100m and 200m champions Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Allyson Felix competed at the Prefontaine Classic.
Whitney looks up to Felix, who also turned pro at 17 and won Olympic 200m silver at 18. They met last year, and Felix gave Whitney a couple of Twitter shoutouts.
“She did say keep working hard, and your future will be bright,” Whitney said.
Whitney acknowledges she’s sacrificing the normal teenage life to be a pro athlete, heading to the track in the morning rather than Clermont East Ridge High for classes. That’s not to say education isn’t a priority. She hopes to finish online high school early, this year, and then probably sign up for virtual college.
Mitchell said people have told Whitney things like, “Good luck at the Olympics,” what the coach calls “outside noise” that he doesn’t want her to listen to.
“We all are going to have to wait and see,” Mitchell said. “Will she make mistakes at this level? Yes she will. But I say that for all of my athletes.”