Unlike her first two school years at Mount de Sales, rising senior Juliette Whittaker wasn’t able to add to the lengthy list of conference championship races she has won competing in cross country and track during her junior year.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic canceling all the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championship meets in cross country and both track seasons, Whittaker still made her mark.
It was profound and on a much greater stage.
Competing at the U.S. Olympic trials in the 800-meter race at the end of June — she qualified with a personal-best performance at a national high school indoor meet in January — the 17-year-old Laurel resident showed she belonged among the best in the country. Taking third in her preliminary heat, she advanced to the semifinals and when the competition was complete, she ended up 10th out of 42 runners.
While the finish didn’t earn her a spot on the U.S. roster for the Tokyo Olympics this summer, her poised performance in Eugene, Oregon, is an indication of her unlimited potential.
For her commitment and excellence in running and her breakthrough at the national level, Whittaker has been selected as The Baltimore Sun’s 2020-21 High School Girls Athlete of the Year.
“It feels great for people to acknowledge [the hard work that goes into the sport] and really see everything that I’m doing,” she said. “So receiving this award, it just helps recognize all the hard work that I’ve been putting in and it makes me happy to see that other people see it, too.”
Whittaker’s first race in nearly a year due to the pandemic, which took place at the prestigious Virginia Showcase in Virginia Beach on Jan. 16, was memorable.
Against the other top high school runners in the country — two of whom also went on to qualify — she posted a personal best indoor time of 2:02.07 in winning the 800 meters and qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials. It was the third fastest time by a high school girl — ever — and set a confident tone moving forward.
In the spring, she set two more outdoor personal bests in other out-of-state events and was performing at her best heading into the trials. Her experience in Eugene was a big thrill.
“I was definitely nervous, but I was expecting to feel more nervous than I usually am going into races. But I honestly felt either the same or less nervous than, like, my high school races because I just went into it with an attitude of feeling like I have nothing to lose. It was just a cool experience that I was just grateful for,” she said. “So, I was really trying not to stress about how I was going to do and things like that. I was just so excited to be racing with all these really amazing athletes that I’ve looked up to for so long and just learn how to race these high competitive meets and kind of hold my own with a lot of talented athletes.”
Mount de Sales coach Steve Weber, who trains Whittaker alongside Juliette’s father, Paul Whittaker, was impressed with her performance under the big lights.
“She’s so cool under fire — she kept her nerves under control,” he said. “When you see the high schoolers talking excessively, rapidly — the nerves show. Not in her case. She’s just a calm being but fierce when she needs to be. She really kept herself together.”
While there wasn’t an IAAM outdoor championship meet this spring due to the pandemic, Whittaker was still able to represent Mount de Sales in a handful of regular-season meets to stay close with her teammates.
In her first two years for the Sailors, she was an All-Metro first-team selection in each season of cross country and indoor and outdoor track she has competed — five in all — with Athlete of the Year honors coming in her freshman outdoor track campaign.
She won both of the IAAM cross country championship races she ran and has a combined six conference title races in indoor and outdoor track — a mix between the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races.
She cherishes the time she shares with her teammates and it’s a big part of her training regime and overall success.
“It’s so good being part of a team because you push each other and it also makes it so much more fun,” she said. “If I was on my own, I think I would definitely stress more and be more nervous. But having all my teammates around me, it just makes it so much more fun and more enjoyable. Everyone is so supportive and makes it so much better and makes me feel like I’m not alone and always have people supporting me.”
When asked about his daughter’s breakthrough year, Paul Whittaker, who ran track at Georgetown along with his wife, Jill, said it started when the pandemic first arrived. Juliette’s dedication and passion for the sport, during a time when there were no meets to work for, showed up with all the disciplined hard work she put in on her own.
The immediate reward came with the valuable experience she gained at the Olympic trials, which will hopefully be a stepping stone in providing a bigger reward in the future.
“She ran well and I was so overjoyed with that,” Paul Whittaker said. “This was the time for her to realize that she can run with pretty much anybody, barring maybe a select two people I can think of.”
He later added: “I knew what she could do, but it’s one thing to plan and another to execute. So she got to a certain level here and next time around she should be able to advance further than she did.”
Staying to watch the 800-meter final on Sunday, Juliette, and her older sister, Isabella, a rising sophomore at Penn who qualified in the 400-meter race, shared a special moment with elite company.
When the top three finishers who are now set to compete in Tokyo were doing their celebration lap after the race — 19-year-old winner Athing Mu, runner-up Raevyn Rogers and third-place finisher Ajee’ Wilson — they stopped on the track to have a photo taken with the Whittaker sisters.
As Wilson was jogging away, she looked back and told Juliette that she would be back here in three years. It was a moment that gave the Whittaker family goose bumps.
“It was incredible. I could not stop playing it over and over in my head,” Juliette said. “It was just so crazy because I’ve looked up to Ajee’ for so long and she’s just such an incredible athlete and kind person. For her to say that, she just really gave me a lot of confidence because it shows other people really believe in me and can see me do such big things. So it makes me think ‘Why not see that in myself, you know?’”
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Whittaker is still weighing her college options but is being heavily recruited by numerous top Division I programs.