USA Swimming has a glut of young talent. USA Swimming always has a glut of young talent, and the rate at which National Age Group Records have been falling over the last 5 years indicates that the trend is not just continuing, but growing.
Among that young talent, especially on the men’s side, there’s two teenagers that stand out among the rest, though. Literally. They’re huge.
One is 6’6″ Michael Andrew, a professional swimmer based out of Kansas.
The other is 6’8″ Reece Whitley, who just finished his sophomore year of high school at Penn Charter in Philadelphia.
The best view of them yet will come on Sunday morning, in the last event of the first session of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, where the two will swim side-by-side in prelims of the 100 breaststroke. Whitley doesn’t turn 17 until January, so he’ll be chasing Andrew’s 15-16 National Age Group Record in the event, while Andrew will be chasing after his own 17-18 record – and ultimately both swimmers will target a semi-final opportunity in their first showing.
Andrew comes in as the 11th qualifier in the event, with a 1:00.68 seed time to his name. That’s not his best time – he’s actually the 7th-best swimmer in the qualifying period thanks to a record-setting 1:00.37 done last week in this same pool – but USA Swimming typically stops updating seed times after a certain date and instead focuses on just adding new entries to the psych sheets.
Whitley comes in as the 17th qualifier with a 1:01.00. That’s a time he did last august at the World Junior Championships. Unlike Andrew, whose training cycle allows him to be close to his best at most meets he swims, Whitley follows a more traditional peak-and-taper process, and has been under 1:02 only once since his 2015 taper.
Those seeds, unless Andrew gets re-seeded based on his new best time, will put them side-by-side in the first circle-seeded heat in Omaha, with Andrew in lane 6 and Whitley in lane 7. With 10 lanes expected to be used, that would currently put them in heat 13, though scratches might impact the number of heats before them.
The two had their first big head-to-head race in the B-Final of the 2014 USA Swimming Summer Junior Nationals, in which Whitley edged Andrew. The two have faced off many times since (including center-pool at March’s NCSAs, where Andrew won by two-tenths of a second).
The two are at the same time very similar and yet very different.
Andrew turned pro in 2013 when he was just 14-years old, making him the youngest known professional swimmer in history. Whitley, who just finished his sophomore year of high school, is on track to go the more traditional NCAA route.
Andrew is the son of two South African immigrants – his dad is his full-time coach and former South African Navy OPPS diver, and his mom is a real estate agent. Whitley attends the William Penn Charter School, and both of his parents are doctors. Andrew’s dad Peter is a former national-level swimmer in South Africa, and his mom Tina is a former Gladiator. Again, literally. Her code-name was Laser. Whitley’s dad says he can “handle himself in the water,” but that neither of his parents were ever competitive swimmers of any kind.
Andrew will swim 5 events at next week’s Olympic Trials, including breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle, and the 200 IM – and he’s got a backstroke of national-caliber as well. Whitley is swimming all breaststroke – though he stretches to the 200, where Andrew is only racing the 100.
In the details, they’re very different. But in the broader sense, they’re two hallmarks that represent the future of American swimming – and that’s something American fans should be excited about. They’re both physically-imposing, yet both are as kind as any on the deck. They’re both very intelligent, thoughtful, well-spoken, and comfortable with the stardom that they inevitably attract. They both have to contend with the fact that they are stars among their peers – most swimmers their age are chasing older swimmers for autographs and selfies. Michael and Reece are chased themselves, and they both handle the attention humbly and gracefully.
“Reece is a black African-American whose parents went to prestigious colleges on the east coast and Michael is a white kid who’s parents are from Africa and have this wealth of life experiences from travelling and working all around the world,” says Elvis Burrows of the Black & White Swim Talk show, who knows both swimmers. “Reece is taller, but his parents are a lot shorter than Michael’s. It’s like they’re in this weird inter-connected Twighlight-Zone where they’re breaking each others’ records over and over again and they’re doing it in such different ways with such different backgrounds…yet they’ve got the same vibe to them. You look at them and their profiles are so different, but they’re both so successful.”
The two have always stood a head among their peers, until they faced each other, when suddenly the plane of vision was equal and clear, and has already yielded big battles. The two have all of the tools to be stars among American swimmers for the next decade. They’re swimming in different lanes and along different paths to the ultimate goals, but side-by-side they’ve risen to stardom that transcends the typical national age group record holders, and for both their similarities and their differences, American swimming fans should feel very lucky for the potential of these two as the faces of the sport in their country.