Whitley, who stands 6-foot-8, has been named the Sports Illustrated’s SportsKid of the Year for 2015, and this morning on “Good Morning America” he got to see the cover of the magazine for the very first time.
“Heyyyyy, awesome,” the swimming sensation from Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, said, clapping his hands in excitement. “It’s amazing. This whole process has been really fun to be a part of. So I think just seeing this at the end has been really cool. I’m enjoying it.”
“Wow, thank you,” he said in awe of her message. “That’s awesome.”
Mark Bechtel, managing editor of Sports Illustrated Kids, says the magazine looks for “kids who excel on the field and off it,” when choosing their SportsKid of the Year. “Or in Reece’s case, in the pool and out of it,” he added.
“What makes him so special is that he’s 15 years old. He’s an elite world class athlete, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the way he acts,” Bechtel said.
“He’s got time for school, he’s got time to mentor all these little kids who look up to him and want to be him. Everything he does, he just does with this youthful exuberance and joy and so much humility.”
Whitley credits his success to failure at summer camp when he was 7.
“I failed that deep-water test the first time I did it. So I told my mom that night and she enrolled me in lessons the next week and this is what happens,” he said in an interview with ABC News’ Linsey Davis.
Whitley holds five national age group records. His swimming times are fast enough to have already qualified him for the 2016 Olympic trials.
He’s not only breaking records. As an African-American, Whitley is breaking barriers, too.
Seventy percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim, according to the USA Swimming Foundation.
Asked for his reaction to that statistic, Whitley replied: “I think as I get older ... I’m going to need to take – play a key role in kind of integrating swimming into inner city communities a lot more.”
Davis asked Whitley how he feels to be compared to swimming’s elite athletes.
“It means a lot, but at the end of the day you can’t really get caught up in that stuff,” he said. “It throws your mind off.”
Little League pitcher Mo’Ne Davis was last year’s SportsKid of the Year.
Sports Illustrated Kids is available online today and on newsstands tomorrow.