Reece Whitley, a Penn Charter sophomore and a breaststroke sensation, is the Sports Illustrated Kids 2015 SportsKid of the Year!
First Lady Michelle Obama announced the news on Twitter at 8:28 this morning in a tweet congratulating Reece on his selection. “We are so proud of you!” she said.
Within minutes, Reece made his first appearance on national television on ABC’s Good Morning America. Introduced as the “next big thing in breaststroke,” he looked handsome and calm on live television as he told how he got his start in swimming.
He failed the deep-water swimming test at Penn Charter summer camp when he was 7 years old, he recounted. “I told my mom that night, and she enrolled me in lessons, and this is what happened.”
Now 15 years old, Reece is a swimming sensation with hopes of competing in the Olympics, perhaps in 2016 in Rio de Janiero. He knows the times he needs to beat to qualify – and he has them on the wall in his bedroom.
Asked to name adults he admires, Reece named his parents, Karl Whitley and Kim Smith-Whitley. “My parents are my largest mentors,” said Reece. “There’s no swimmer who can do what my parents do for me.”
Mark Bechtel, managing editor of Sports Illustrated Kids, said the magazine contest looks “for kids who excel on the field and off it, or in Reece’s case, in the pool or out.” Reece excels in school and finds time to mentor young kids who want to be like him. He has “youthful exuberance and joy,” said Bechtel. “He just comes off as a big kid.”
Bechtel said the SportsKid of the Year also should possess an awareness of the world around, and Reece touched on this in the TV interview, explaining that he feels compelled to bring swimming to more African-American children. "I think I'm going to need to play a key role in integrating swimming in inner city communities a lot more," Reece said.
Penn Charter students have the day off today, a faculty in-service day, and many of them were probably asleep when the news broke. But the adults were delighted and proud.
“Since his arrival at Penn Charter in kindergarten, we knew Reece was special,” said Head of School Darryl J. Ford. “As he has grown up at our school, he has not only established himself as a great student and athlete but also as a great member of our community. We are so very proud that Reece was selected to be on the cover of SI Kids.”
Reece has won a junior national championship in the breaststroke and holds five individual national age-group marks in the pool, where he has become one of the top young swimmers in the country.
The 6'8" Whitley's times in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke last year qualified him to compete at the 2016 Olympic Trials this June in Omaha, Nebraska. He's also become a role model for young swimmers in his community and wherever he travels.
"Getting to know Reece a little bit, he's incredible. The guy is very talented, he's super relaxed, super outgoing," said 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. "He's seeing results, he's having fun, he's enjoying himself. He's a stud."
Reece excels in the classroom as well. His schedule this year includes Advanced Algebra, Advanced Chemistry and Mandarin – he was excited last summer to be able to use his Mandarin during a visit to China for a meet. He is also a member of the Endangered Species Awareness Club.
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Sports Illustrated Kids Press Release