Most 7-year-olds forced to have ear surgery after their first year of swimming would be turned from the sport for good. But thankfully for the Davis High boys swim team, junior Matt Whittle was not the average kid.
A decade later, Whittle is flourishing in the pool, and hopes to help the Blue Devils move up from their third-place finish at last year’s Sac-Joaquin Section title meet. This season’s SJS championships begin with trials on Friday and end Saturday with finals at Tokay High in Lodi.
Whittle started swimming competitively at the age of 6. However, just one year into his career, he had to undergo several surgeries because his ear would not drain water properly.
But in a family of athletes, including parents Daron and Jennifer, Whittle didn’t let that stop him. Dad also was a swimmer, Matt’s 14-year old sister Sarah plays club volleyball for FiveStarz and their step-siblings participate in football and cheerleading.
Growing up, Matt played most of the major team sports — baseball, football, basketball and soccer — before eventually decided to swim exclusively. Since then, he and the Devils have reaped the benefits of his hard work in the pool.
Whittle has collected a number of individual accolades, including qualifying in the A-final division (top eight swimmers) for the Junior National Championships the past two years, and has been ranked among the top 10 swimmers in the nation.
To go along with his national appearances, Whittle also has picked up section hardware while swimming for the Blue Devils. Heading into the 2013 SJS finals, he already has three individual section titles in his two favorite events: the 100-yard butterfly, which he won last year as a sophomore, and the 100 breaststroke, an event he has won the past two years and where he shares the SJS record with former DHS star Keenan Newman.
The total is even more impressive since Whittle can add to it this weekend and again next season. So how does a someone who has had that much early success keep himself motivated?
“Each season I sit down with my coach and have a goal-setting meeting,” Whittle said. “I set my goals for the season, and decide what I need to do. I have short-term goals and long-term goals for every season and they help remind myself of the goals I have, to help me keep waking up in the morning for morning practice.
“My short-term goals are to win and break two section meet records, in the 200 IM and the 100 butterfly. For my long-term goals, I hope to sign with a college team this November, and swim in the NCAA for all four years of my college career.”
Whittle has already looked at several Division I schools in the SEC and Pac-12, including Cal, USC, Arizona, Auburn and Alabama, and has been contacted by the coaches at Harvard and Princeton.
And though he hasn’t spent much time looking farther than that, Whittle wouldn’t mind following in the footsteps of former UC Davis swimmer Scott Weltz, who competed for the U.S. in the 2012 Summer Games.
“I haven’t really thought about that yet,” Whittle said. “If the time comes and I’m fast enough to be on the national team or I get supported financially to keep swimming, then I’d most likely take that opportunity.”
But for right now, Whittle and the rest of Blue Devils are focused solely on the section championships. Davis coach Tracy Stapleton expects defending champion Granite Bay, 2012 runner-up Jesuit and Oak Ridge to provide the biggest opposition. There will be other talented swimmers from other schools, but they will not have the depth to match up with the Devils, who will have 13 boys competing.
Stapleton is expecting a high-octane meet, with plenty of excitement, which is why he is working on keeping his guys focused:
“I always tell athletes, the fact is it’s you, in your lane, by yourself. What happens everywhere else doesn’t matter. It’s you alone, nothing anyone else does can affect you. Everyone swims the same distance, everyone’s swimming the same stroke in your event, and it doesn’t matter how many people are swimming around you. It’s you, by yourself.”
Stapleton expects most of DHS’ scoring to come from Whittle; sophomore Riley Hickman; juniors Jonathan Pun, Garrett Fisk, Ben Diamant, Tyler Ujifusa and Graham Fullerton; and seniors Andrew Block and Adam Raabe. However, Stapleton stressed the importance of all of the swimmers contributing:
“You never know. The fact is, you have big point scorers, but last year, first place to third place was 13 points. Thirteen points is one sixth-place finish (and that separated the) three teams. There aren’t too many people celebrating a sixth-place finish, but if we would’ve had one more sixth-place finish, we would have been the section champions instead of somebody else.
“Everyone has a role to play. You might score one point, but that might be the difference.”
Notes: When he’s not in the pool, Whittle loves watching the San Francisco Giants. … Hickman is the defending section champion in the 200 freestyle.