Reece Whitley, long a standout swimmer, breaks through at nationals

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Reece Whitley long had the pedigree, and the backstory, to portend swimming success. He realized it at the U.S. Championships this week.

The 6-foot-9 19-year-old made his first career summer nationals finals in Palo Alto, Calif. He won the 200m breaststroke and finished third in the 100m breast with personal-best times to establish himself as a contender for the 2020 Olympic team.

“I haven’t been as fast as I wanted to be the past couple of years,” said Whitley, who broke 23 national age-group records through high school before matriculating at Cal last year. “I feel like I’ve always been on the outside looking in.”

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Whitley always stood out — a towering African-American coached by a woman while at a 300-year-old Quaker school in Pennsylvania. As a rising high school junior at the 2016 Olympic Trials, he made the semifinals of both breaststrokes, a discipline dominated by men at least six inches shorter.

But, two years later, the transition to college on the other side of the country proved difficult.

“I went from a small club team who couldn’t find any long-course pool time, six lanes, 25-yard pool to training next to Josh Prenot, Ryan Murphy, Nathan Adrian a couple of lanes over every day,” Whitley, naming individual Olympic medalists who also train under Dave Durden at Cal, said on USA Swimming’s Deck Pass Live after winning the 200m breast on Thursday. “Am I good? Should I be here? But fast swimming, it’s amazing how contagious it can be.”

In 2018, Whitley failed to record a personal best in either breaststroke for the first time over a calendar year. This past March, he placed fourth and fifth as a freshman at the NCAA Championships, helping Cal to its first team title in five years.

“From day one, it was like, all right, we’ve got this team goal of winning a national title,” Whitley said. “What are you going to do to help us get there? It was super intimidating at first.”

In Palo Alto, Whitley shaved 1.13 seconds off his personal best in Thursday’s 200m breast, moving to sixth-fastest among Americans this year. The top four didn’t enter nationals, which take place a week after the world championships.

He moved closer to breaking the separating-men-from-boys one-minute barrier in the 100m breast, clocking 1:00.05 to rank ninth in the U.S. this year. Devon Nowicki won in 59.69.

“It’s going to take a lot faster than that to make the team next year, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Whitley said Thursday. “That’s all I can ask for right now. This summer doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s great to drop time, but everybody’s focused on next summer.”

In other Saturday events, 2012 Olympian Breeja Larson took the women’s 100m breast in 1:06.78, her best time since 2014 and failing to make the 2016 Olympic team. Larson, 27, ranks third among Americans this year behind Olympic champion Lilly King and Annie Lazor, who are not at nationals.

Shaine Casas followed his runner-up in the 200m backstroke by winning the 100m back in 52.72, ranking him fifth in the world this year. His time would have taken bronze at the world championships.

Amy Bilquist won the women’s 100m back in 59.64 to rank sixth in the U.S. this year. Regan Smith, who lowered the world record to 57.57 at worlds, did not swim the event at nationals.

Ally McHugh won the 400m freestyle in 4:07.08 against a field lacking Olympic gold and bronze medalists Katie Ledecky and Leah Smith. McHugh’s time ranks her fifth in the U.S. this year. She also won the Ledecky- and Smith-less 800m free on Wednesday.

To no surprise, Australian Elijah Winnington captured the men’s 400m free in 3:47.39. The U.S. has no men in the top 10 in the world this year and just one in the top 20 (No. 11 Zane Grothe, who scratched the event at nationals).

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