Understandably, Mount de Sales track star Juliette Whittaker looked like a giddy teenager.
Her smile was huge and she started to giggle. Even the face covering she was wearing couldn’t hide her excitement.
For the 17-year-old junior, all the jubilation came from two minutes and a couple seconds — her winning time in the 800-meter girls race at the prestigious Virginia Showcase in Virginia Beach on Jan. 16.
The post-race interview started with a rundown of what she had accomplished: a personal best, a meet record, getting under the Olympic Trials qualifying standard.
The interviewer then said: “2:02.07 — how incredible is that?”
Gushing, Whittaker exclaimed: “Yeah!”
Whittaker hadn’t raced since last February because of the coronavirus pandemic and was a bit nervous going against most of the country’s other top runners. Instead, a day that started with uncertainty ended with the most satisfaction she has ever experienced on the track.
Whittaker ran the third-fastest indoor time by a high school girl in the 800 — ever.
Days later, she was still trying to process the achievement. Her previous personal best in the event was 2:03.01.
“It was insane. I’ve been wanting a time [like that] for awhile, but you don’t quite process it until you really get it,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to go 2:02 and I just have been thinking about doing it, doubting myself every now and then ... thinking I can do it, and then doubting it. So to see the time — right there — it was completely real and I did it and I was just so happy.”
A Laurel resident, Whittaker comes from a running family.
Her parents, Paul and Jill, ran at Georgetown. Two of her three older siblings are running in college — her brother, Alex, at Yale and her sister, Bella, at Penn.
The youngest Whittaker has quickly built an impressive resume as one of the country’s best middle-distance high school runners.
For the Sailors, she has been an All-Metro first-team selection in every season of cross country and indoor and outdoor track she has competed, five in all, with Performer of the Year honors coming in her freshman outdoor track campaign. In cross country, she captured both of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championship races she ran. In track, she has won a combined six conference title races, a mix between the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races.
Her father helps coach her in collaboration with Mount de Sales coach Steve Weber.
What Paul Whittaker has seen from his youngest daughter is a special one-two combination that plays a big role in separating from others.
“My coach from Georgetown still says this: ‘Strength plus speed equals success.’ That has stuck with me for 30 some years and that’s the way she’s trained,” he said. “She’s unique and I think a lot of people are starting to realize how unique she is. She’s just got an incredible range with her strength and speed.”
When the pandemic began, Whittaker had a tough time adjusting. She didn’t have her Mount de Sales teammates to train, with and she didn’t have any meets to help push her each day.
But eventually, she turned it into a positive. The shutdown gave her plenty of time to train with no meets to prepare for and no weekend travel.
“I just thought about how it would feel to race again and I wanted to be ready for that race, so I wanted to do as much as I can in that moment to make sure that race is great,” she said. “So I just had to keep working, even when there was nothing really to look forward to and know that everything would work out fine in the end.”
About seven weeks before the Virginia Showcase, Whittaker began training with the idea that she was getting ready for that race. Her father was impressed with what he saw.
“I knew she was ready to run fast — I didn’t know how fast — but I thought she was going to PR,” he said. “She was in great enough shape and she even told me about two weeks ago ‘I feel like I’m stronger now compared to this time last year.’ She said: ‘I don’t feel like I’m faster, but I feel stronger,’ and I told her, ‘Oh no, you’re just as fast, you just don’t realize it yet.’”
Father and daughter rode together on the four-hour trip to Virginia Beach a couple of Saturdays ago with limited conversation and no talk about the race. One thing Paul has learned about his daughter on race day is that she likes to keep to herself, not overanalyzing strategy.
“So, literally, we didn’t talk about the race until we were grabbing her bags and leaving the hotel room to walk across to the track,” he said. “I said ‘OK, you got to give me two minutes, let’s just talk about it and then I won’t say another word.’ And we both laughed.”
Come race time, Juliette has found a knack of turning any self doubt and nerves into positive energy. It’s something Weber has seen time and time again.
“Juliette has a way of keeping a sort of calmness — even while she races — it’s like this fierce calmness,” he said. “She can block out distractions, save her energy and it’s just this wondrous calm intensity of hers.”
Her father has always pressed upon her how important the third lap, or third 200 meters, is in successfully running the 800, and that hit home in her monumental victory. About 500 meters into the race, she made her first significant move to gain separation from the other five runners. A second push before the final lap put the race away.
Sophia Gorriaran, a sophomore from Moses Brown School in Rhode Island, finished second in a time of 2:03.96 — nearly two seconds behind Whittaker.
“It was just a beautiful piece of running,” Weber said. “She sized up the situation and she was right on and did exactly what she should have done. The others ran great races, but it didn’t look like it just because her race was so outstanding.”
Whittaker’s previous personal record in the 800 came at the Fastrack Last Chance Indoor Invitation last February in Staten Island, New York.
Back then, she believed she was on the verge of meeting the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:02.50, but it turned out to be the last race she ran in 2020.
Going into the Virginia Showcase, she had the qualifying standard in the back of her mind, but figured she would have other chances this season to reach it. It turns out they were not necessary.
“What I’ve learned is that when I put a goal out there, I really just work so hard to get it,” she said. “I think I set pretty high standards for myself — which is good and sometimes bad. But I think, in the end, I do everything that I can to get to those things and I know what I’m capable of. If I’m not doing that, I know that I have stuff to improve on and things I can get better at, so I just try again and try again until I get to where I really know I can.”