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Penn Charter’s Whitley sets national high school record at Easterns

LANCASTER >> For his hulking stature, Reece Whitley often cuts a much humbler, soft-spoken figure on the pool deck.

So when the Penn Charter junior touched the wall Saturday morning at Franklin & Marshall’s Kunkel Aquatic Center, gazed up at the board and exploded into celebration, you knew the time meant something special.

Whitley earned the top seed for finals in the boys 100 breaststroke at the Eastern Interscholastic Championships, his time of 52.35 seconds the fastest ever recorded in high school competition.

He followed it up with a time of 51.84 in the evening session, an unfathomably fast time.

It’s an exalted record, in many ways the high school mark in a discipline that Whitley has dominated since he was in elementary school.

“That swim was pretty emotional for me,” Whitley said. “I think that was probably the most emotional swim I’ve had ever. … It’s something that’s been in my head ever since freshman year.”

Whitley admitted to taking the swim out slow in the morning, and backed the up in the evening swim that appeared to leave him even a little shocked.

“I was a lot more relaxed,” he said. “I knew I had to get out and really get after it. Seeing the rest of the swims Penn Charter had got me pumped up. I knew I had to go out fast, I had a fire under my butt, and I think I did that.”

Whitley’s speedy time cuts through the ambiguity of the convoluted system of record-keeping that recognizes separate public and independent schools marks. The National Federation of High Schools record stood at 52.92, set by Jacob Molacek of Creighton Prep (Nebraska) in 2014. The national public record was owned by Avon, Ind.’s Chandler Bray at 52.65 set a year ago. Whitley dashed both.

In the process, Whitley bested his Easterns standard set as a sophomore. He also erased by a devastating margin the pool mark of 55.72 established by Lancaster Aquatic’s Kyle Salyards when he was in high school in 1998. (Two-plus years after that record, Salyards took sixth for the U.S. in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 breast.) Reminder: Whitley is still a junior, fielding offers from the full complement of national swimming powers, who still has a final swim ahead of him.

Adding to the intrigue is Whitley’s extended pursuit of these nuggets of history. Friday night, he set a meet record in the 200 individual medley of 1:44.91 … .01 away from the national prep record set in 2014 by Curtis Ogren. (He’s still a ways off the NFHS record, owned by Hershey’s David Nolan at 1:41.39 from 2011. Again, convoluted.)

Whitley brushed within .05 of the Molacek mark last year with his winning time of 52.97. He also dueled as a freshman with the previous record holder, Georgetown Prep’s Carsten Vissering.

So Whitley’s aim Saturday was to put the matter to rest early under the relatively relaxed environs of prelims, and he responded with a brilliant swim.

“I had to sleep on that (200 IM) a little bit, so just coming out here, I just relay wanted to get it in prelims,” he said. “That’s one of the only times I’ve gone into a race thinking, ‘OK we need to go fast here,’ and I’ve actually done it. Most of the time, it’s been, ‘aw, too slow,’ or prelims last year where I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to get this record and go fast,’ and prelims was so slow. This year was thankfully different. Super happy with what it was.”

Even a swimmer of Whitley’s caliber admits a little frustration from time to time, and he’s felt stuck at 52 for a while. Without any other swims encumbering him Saturday, he could let fly and see what he could do, unleashing some of his still immense potential on the water at F&M.

On the subject of records, Whitley identified his distinction as the first 12-year-old ever to break a minute in the 100 breast as still the most special among a slew of national age-group records and other accolades. But Saturday’s installment is worthy of the pantheon.

“It’s real special. It’s up there,” he said. “Definitely my first one will always be No. 1 in my mind, when I broke a minute. … This one’s pretty up there. I haven’t really thought about it too much so I’m sure after this week when we look back on this meet, I’ll get to think about it a little bit more.”

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