Fifteen-year-old swimmer Reece Whitley set to chase an Olympic bid

Each time the sound of a blaring alarm clock jars him awake before dawn, Reece Whitley opens his eyes to a reminder of why he tortures himself with early-morning training day after day.

Hanging on the wall above the 15-year-old swimmer's bed are two tattered sheets of paper displaying numbers he's targeting.

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• July 30: Fifteen-year-old swimmer Reece Whitley is chasing a spot on Olympic team

One signifies the time it took to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in the 200-meter breaststroke. The other is the American record in the 100-meter breaststroke.

"I definitely see it as motivation," Whitley said. "I truly believe I am going to pass those goals and that's why I have those on my wall. It's a pretty easy way to remind myself why I'm getting up at 5 in the morning or why I'm going to bed super tired and smelling like chlorine."

Athletes so young seldom take aim at such grandiose milestones, but Whitley has long made a habit of defying conventional wisdom. He's an African-American thriving in a sport that traditionally lacks diversity. He's a 6-foot-8 teenager specializing in the stroke that typically rewards height the least. And he's the rare straight-A student who also happens to be a world-class athlete.

Whitley smashed the national age-group record for 15- and 16-year-olds in the 200 breaststroke earlier this year, putting up a lifetime-best time that was less than a second shy of what it took to make the finals at the last U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012. The Pennsylvania native also owns the national age-group record for 13- and 14-year-olds in both the 100 and 200 breast stroke.

Those record-setting swims beg the question whether Whitley can make one more huge leap in time to thrust himself into contention for a spot on next summer's U.S. Olympic team. Whitley will get a barometer of where he stands the next two weeks in San Antonio when he swims the 200 breaststroke and 200 individual medley at Junior Nationals and the 100 and 200 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley at Nationals.

"This is going to be a big summer for him as far as seeing what he can do against the rest of the country and how he's going to match up going into Olympic Trials in a year," said former U.S. swimmer Brendan Hansen, a three-time Olympic medalist in the breaststroke. "I think the breaststroke events will be two of the softer ones at Trials. You don't really have a slam dunk for who's going to make the team. It will be interesting to see who builds momentum this summer and puts themselves into good position."

In an era when the U.S. has produced dominant swimmers in almost every discipline, men's breaststroke has been one of the few exceptions.

No American man has captured Olympic gold in the breaststroke since 1992 and only Hansen has even won a medal since 2000. Hansen even managed to come out of retirement three years ago and qualify for the 2012 Olympics in the 100-meter breaststroke at age 30, an accomplishment he took pride in yet also viewed as an ominous sign for USA Swimming because it signified that an heir apparent to him had yet to emerge.

Whitley is the youngest and most talented of a handful of rising American breaststrokers hoping to someday fill that void. It's a source of motivation for Whitley when he combs through the results of big international meets and continually discovers that the top finishers in the breaststroke events hail from Europe or Japan.

"He talks about that all the time," said Crystal Coleman, Whitley's coach at Penn Charter Aquatic Club in Philadelphia. "He's like, 'I don't know what's going on with American breaststroke.' He does see there are other young up-and-comers in the breaststroke like him, but all those years of not having an American breaststroker is definitely a motivating factor for him."

Reece Whitley at age 6 (via Kim Smith-Whitley)
Reece Whitley at age 6 (via Kim Smith-Whitley)

It's still sometimes hard for Whitley's parents to believe they're raising an Olympic hopeful because neither of them have any background in competitive swimming.

They only enrolled Whitley in swimming lessons as a 7-year-old because he came home from summer camp crushed that he failed a deep-water safety test and couldn't join his friends in the pool. Even then, Whitley's parents still viewed swimming lessons as the solution to a safety issue rather than the springboard to athletic glory.

"It was actually scary to me that my son did not pass that test because it meant there was a possibility he wasn't safe in the water," his mother Kim Smith-Whitley said. "Being in the healthcare field and thinking you're on top of everything, that was a really big wakeup call for me. I literally got on my computer that night and started looking for swimming lessons."

For Whitley, the transition from learning to keep his head above water, to swimming competitively, to challenging national age group records was remarkably rapid. By age 12, he grew to 6-foot-4, identified the breaststroke as his specialty and emerged as an elite prospect capable of outracing kids four and five years older than him.

What has fueled Whitley's continued success is a combination of genetics and work ethic.

Having a height and wingspan edge on his competitors is an advantage for Whitley because he can get from one end of the pool to the other in fewer strokes and he can propel himself further underwater when pushing off on his turns. The breaststroke is too technical to reward size and power as much as the freestyle, backstroke or butterfly do, yet a tall swimmer like Whitley can still exploit his advantage if he maintains the proper rhythm, timing and stroke rate.

One big reason Whitley has been willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get the most out of his natural ability is the influence of growing up in a household where hard work and success are the norm. His mother Kim is the medical director of the sickle cell clinical program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. His father Karl is an ear, nose and throat surgeon who works at three different Philadelphia hospitals.

Whitley spends two and a half hours every afternoon in the pool, sometimes building endurance and other times working to perfect his technique for the breaststroke and the individual medley. Three mornings a week, he's also up by 5 a.m. to train and lift weights in hopes of narrowing the strength gap between himself and older competitors who will be vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team next summer.

"I'm willing to do all that because I see myself improving and reaching higher levels," Whitley said. "I'm not really a lover of practice, but what I try to keep in mind is where I could go. That's what keeps me in the pool everyday. I'm trying to work up the ranks as quickly as possible."

The emergence of a black Olympic hopeful in a sport not typically rich in African-American talent is emblematic of swimming's gradual increase in diversity the past few years.

Reece Whitley (via Kim Smith-Whitley)
Reece Whitley (via Kim Smith-Whitley)

Freestyle specialists Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones became the first two African-American swimmers to capture Olympic gold in 2000 and 2008, respectively. In 2002 Maritza Correia became the first black woman to set an American record earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, in 2004. Then in April, three African-American women swept first, second and third place in the 100-yard freestyle at the NCAA Championships, a feat never before accomplished in college swimming.

While Whitley is often the lone African-American swimmer at meets he attends, he insists he never feels self-conscious or uncomfortable because of his race. He is hopeful that swimming's demographics will change during the course of his career and that he will be one of the catalysts for it.

"Ever since I've started getting attention for what I've been doing in the sport, I think that has always been a goal," Whitley said. "But instead of just being a role model for African-American children, I want to try to focus on being a role model to everyone. I'd like to inspire all kids to get in the pool regardless of race."

It's too soon to project whether Whitley can have that sort of impact on swimming, but the early signs are certainly promising.

He has dominated the youth ranks in the breaststroke. He beat a nine-time NCAA All-American and the Venezuelan national record holder to claim fourth place in the 200 breaststroke at a prestigious meet in Charlotte in April. And he is focused on building strength and perfecting his technique over the next year in hopes that will help him make the last jump he needs to contend for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

Even though Whitley is already world-class in swimming, his size and athleticism still make him a potential standout in other sports.

Whitley's club baseball coach pleaded with him to reconsider last year when he decided to give up pitching for good to focus exclusively on swimming. Coaches at his high school frequently have a sales pitch ready for Whitley when they bump into him on campus.

"It happens to this day," Whitley said with a chuckle. "I've been asked to play goalie for the soccer team, to row for the crew team, to play basketball, football and lacrosse too. It's flattering, but I think I'll stick to swimming."

Seems like a wise choice for a kid with grandiose goals and the talent to accomplish them. Whitley is on a mission to surpass the milestones hanging above his bed, and nothing is going to shake his focus.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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