Kaylin Whitney may be the only teenage girl in America to have begged her parents to let her work on Christmas.
When Whitney’s coaches insisted she train with them for four hours on Christmas morning instead of taking the day off, the sprinting phenom’s mother initially wasn’t pleased. Whitney’s mom didn’t want to break the family’s holiday tradition of eating breakfast together and unwrapping gifts under the tree, but her daughter argued the workout presented a chance to gain an edge on her competitors.
“To me, training on Christmas is a confidence boost,” Whitney said. “When I’m out there on the track with all these great sprinters, I can think to myself, ‘How many of them were out there on Christmas morning getting work in like I was?’ I know my coaches prepared me better than anyone and all I have to do is execute my race.”
In a sport littered with former high school phenoms who peaked too early and never panned out, Whitney’s rare combination of supernatural talent and unwavering dedication could help her defy the odds. The 17-year-old Florida native hopes to solidify her reputation as track and field’s next great female sprinter this week in Oregon when she makes her U.S. Championships debut.
If Whitney achieves her ambitious goals of making the finals in the 100 and 200 meters this week and qualifying for the Olympics next summer, those will be her most significant accomplishments yet during her unfathomably rapid ascent. At 14, she began training alongside professionals. At 15, she swept both sprints events at Florida’s state championship meet. At 16, she smashed the world youth records in the 100 and 200 meters, posting times of 11.10 and 22.49 seconds, respectively, to eclipse marks that had stood for 22 and 38 years.
Those mesmerizing performances thrust Whitney into a position where she was no longer choosing between college scholarship offers but instead deciding whether to run in college at all. She signed with Nike and turned pro on her 17th birthday this past March even though she had yet to complete her junior year of high school.
“This doesn’t happen,” said ex-hurdler Damu Cherry-Mitchell, who coaches Whitney along with her husband Dennis Mitchell. “When was the last time a high school kid got offered money to run on the professional level? It doesn’t happen. She had to seize the opportunity. It was time to get her feet wet and get some professional experience.”
Whereas top prospects in sports like baseball or tennis routinely turn pro without competing in college, Whitney’s path is highly unconventional for track. Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix signed a professional contract out of high school in 2003 and distance runners Mary Cain and Alexa Efraimson did the same in 2013 and 2014, but the vast majority of American track and field stars come through the college ranks.
Though Whitney is on pace to earn her high school diploma via online classes next spring and intends to enroll in college courses the following year, not everyone approves of her decision to turn pro so young. Just this week, former University of Texas star and reigning Olympic 400 meters champion Sanya Richards-Ross told the Associated Press she wished Whitney “would’ve experienced one or two years in college.”
It’s easy to defend Whitney’s decision since her best times in the 100 and 200 meters were faster than those of the winners at last year’s NCAA championship meet, but world-class speed alone wasn’t the only factor. The environment in which she trained throughout her childhood also helped foster the maturity and work ethic necessary for her parents and coaches to feel comfortable encouraging her to skip a level.
A talented athlete whose father ran track at Arkansas and whose mother played several sports in high school, Whitney showcased natural ability as a runner at a young age.
Her dad insisted she join a local youth track and field club in first grade after watching her overwhelm her peers in a potato sack race. Only three days later, Whitney emerged from a field of 62 young athletes to take home the first of her many first-place trophies.
Don DeNoon, Whitney’s first track coach, also trained two-time world champion distance runner Mary Decker in the 1970s. Asked how long it took him to spot some similarities between his new prodigy and his original one, DeNoon answered without hesitation that it was obvious the first time Whitney worked out with him.
“They were both so talented and they both never wanted to get beaten in a workout or a competition,” DeNoon said. “Sometimes I’d give some of the other girls a 20-meter head start on Kaylin just to give her a challenge. More often than not, she’d eat them up.”
As Whitney learned how to explode off the board in the long jump, surge out of the blocks in the 100 or keep her shoulders square through the turn in the 200, she captured Junior Olympics gold medals in all three events. That caught the attention of Mitchell, who agreed to coach Whitney when DeNoon retired five years ago even though he doesn’t normally train athletes so young.
Mitchell is a controversial choice as a coach because of the 1998 doping violation that derailed his decorated sprinting career, but Whitney and her family insist he has been an entirely positive influence. Between being coached by a former Olympic bronze medalist, training alongside pro sprinters and competing in races against athletes as much as twice her age, Whitney discovered well before most of her peers the level of dedication necessary to succeed at the sport’s highest level.
For Whitney, a typical weekday during high school included classes, afternoon practice at the track, an evening workout at the gym and a massage, a 14-hour schedule that often meant not beginning her homework until well past 9 p.m. Whitney also maintains a strict diet for most of the year, avoiding all fatty foods and carbs and loading up on lean meats, fruits and vegetables.
“I’ve never been one of the parents who had to turn on the lights, rip off the blankets, turn on the alarm and drag her out of bed,” Whitney’s mother Kerrie Dworetsky said. “She would just wake me up at 6 a.m. and say, ‘Good morning, mom. Can you cook my eggs please?’ She tells me what she needs to do. I don’t need to tell her. It’s pretty amazing how self motivated she is.”
The race that convinced Whitney’s advisers she should turn pro was the 200 finals at last summer’s World Junior Championships. Not only did Whitney validate her previous world record by taking first place, she also did it despite a nerve-jangling pre-race moment in which her starting blocks slipped and she appeared to be in jeopardy of being disqualified for a false start.
As the meet referee debated what to rule, Whitney’s mother anxiously paced back and forth in the stands and Whitney’s father stoically mouthed to her, “That was Kaylin.” Only Whitney herself remained poised, calmly waiting for the decision and then taking advantage of her new life by outclassing a loaded field.
“I panicked, but she had this look in her eyes that said, ‘I got this,'” Cherry-Mitchell said. “We didn’t teach her what to do if her equipment malfunctioned, but being around pros for so long, she knew to do her job and stay focused. That’s when we knew this girl could handle anything.”
While it became a hot debate in track and field circles last fall whether Whitney could handle the jump from high school to the pros, to the record-setting sprinter herself it seemed like an easier transition than running in college would be.
Whitney had watched many friends accept scholarship offers to elite programs yet struggle with the transition to a faraway school, a longer season, a new coach and a different training style. By skipping college and turning pro, Whitney was able to maintain her previous lifestyle right down to the household chores for which she’s responsible.
“People think that turning pro was this crazy decision and there was all this change, but my life really isn’t all that different,” Whitney said. “I still get to live with my parents. I still have the same coaches. I still get to see all my friends. The only difference is I do online school. I also get to have way more fun, I get to travel the world, I get to meet new people and I get paid for it.”
The other difference, of course, is a diminished margin for error against superior competition. Whitney finished eighth in the 100 meters at the prestigious Prefontaine Classic last month, an outcome that reflected she can no longer get off to a mediocre start and run down her foes from behind the way she did in high school.
Whitney’s best chance to reach the finals at the US Championships this week is probably the 200 meters, her signature event. How she fares this week will offer an early barometer for her chances next summer of becoming the youngest female sprinter in nearly four decades to qualify for the Olympics.
Earlier this spring, Whitney ran in the Penn Relays on the same day that she would have been preparing for her junior prom had she remained enrolled at her former high school. Next June, she may again be traveling on what would have been her graduation day.
Not being present for those milestones isn’t easy, yet you’ll never hear Whitney complain.
“Before I made this decision to turn pro, I knew I’d miss out on a few things,” Whitney said. “When those days come, am I going to be upset? Of course. I’m 17 years old. But to this day, I’m not regretting my decision whatsoever.”
For a 17-year-old track phenom accustomed to begging her parents to let her train on Christmas morning, missing prom or graduation is just another small sacrifice to help her Olympic dreams come true.
SOURCE: Yahoo! Sports, Jeff Eisenberg