Chasing The Olympic Dream: Juliette Whittaker

By: Carlos Fernandes II

Every serious runner dreams of one day making it to the Olympics. You only have 4-year cycles to run a time that qualifies you to race at the Olympic Trials. Then you have to finish in the top 3 at the trials in order to get the privilege of wearing the big U.S.A letters across your chest. Some runners try their whole lives to make the team and fall short. Well, this year, there’s three high school girls who have run the Olympic Trial Qualifying Standard (OTQ) in the 800m: Juliette Whittaker, Sophia Gorriaran, and Roisin Willis. While these girls haven’t made the Olympic team, just qualifying for the Olympic Trials is amazing!

Juliette Whittaker

The first of the three high schoolers to obtain the OTQ mark, Juliette Whittaker led practically from the gun and willed her way across the line, as she ran away from the field at the VA Showcase for a time of 2:02.07 (.43 under the OTQ). The rest of the year she has shown incredible improvement and is definitely someone to watch as we approach the Olympic Trials.

Who is She?

Whittaker began her athletic career as a swimmer, where she swam for 7 years before quitting swimming to do track in her freshman year of high school. However, before quitting, her swim team was so competitive that she would just attend swim practices, never show up to any cross country practices and instead just show up to the races. She credits her early development in the pool to giving her the strength and endurance that she’s needed to achieve her national status as an 800m runner.

Both of her parents were track athletes in Georgetown, where her mother competed in the hurdles and triple jump and her dad competed in the 800m and 400m. Her old brother and sister both ran track growing up, so Whittaker was used to attending track meets and once high school came around, she was excited to give track a try. Running just seemed to be a family thing, so naturally she gravitated to it. 

Weekly Training

Whittaker’s weekly training consists of three hard track sessions with a moderate long run (usually just during the cross-country season): 

Mondays are more of a strength-based day, where she’ll usually do 1k or 800m repeats. 

Tuesdays are a recovery day, 5-6 miles easy. 

Wednesdays are tempo days where she’ll do a workout like 4 x Mile with 1 minute rest or just 4 miles consecutively with no rest. 

Thursdays are another 5-6 miles recovery run. 

Fridays are usually speed days if there isn’t a meet for the weekend. 

Saturdays feature an easy long run. 

Sundays she does a few miles as a shakeout.

Getting through Covid Uncertainty 

Back in the indoor season of 2020, Whittaker expressed that she was at the peak of her fitness. She had just broken through in the 800m, where she ran 2:03.01 at the Fast Track Last Chance Invitational on February 28th. She left her competition in the dust, running a good portion of the race by herself as the second-place finisher finished 11 seconds behind Whittaker. Following this race, she had her eyes on two things, breaking 2:03, since she was so close, and earning a National Title in the 800m. 

Once covid cancelled the rest of indoor, Whittaker shared that she struggled with running: 

“Not knowing if we’d have an outdoor season or not, the first few weeks of quarantine I struggled a lot with not hitting the times I needed to hit [in practice]. It was hard for me with not having a meet to look forward to.” 

However, she pulled through and was given a glimmer of hope. The meet director for the VA Showcase reached out to her and the other top female HS 800m runners in the nation during the summer and shared that there would be a highly competitive 800m race in January of 2021. While this meet was still far away, it gave Whittaker something to look forward to and in a sense, validated all the hard training she was putting in, week after week.

Another motivating factor during the covid training block, was that while she wasn’t able to train with teammates, her and her sister, Isabella Whittaker, a sprinter for University of Pennsylvania, would go to the track and workout together. While they were doing different workouts, it still felt good to have someone there working hard with her, knowing she wasn’t out suffering alone. 

VA Showcase Breakthrough

Going into the VA Showcase race, she had the OTQ mark in the back of her head. She was only .50 seconds away from it, so she was thinking about how cool it would be to actually get the mark and finally dip under 2:03. Although the excitement was high at the possibility of getting the OTQ mark, she decided to take a step back, lowering the pressure and expectations of herself to hit the mark. It was still on the back of her mind, a motivation for sure, but she wanted to get herself in the right mentality that it was fine if she didn’t hit the mark. After all, she hadn’t raced in a long time so, she was just thankful to finally get an opportunity to race. 

Even though she had reduced the internal pressure, she was still nervous because she knew what kind of an opportunity this race was. All three of the nation’s top female HS 800m runners would be racing together and she wanted to make sure she made this race count. 

“The whole week leading up to the race I was thinking of race plans. I was thinking maybe sit and kick at the end, but then [the day of the race] I was talking to my dad and I thought ‘maybe I don’t want to sit and kick.’ All these runners are sprinters and amazing 400m runners, while I’m more on the strength side. So [I thought] maybe I should take it out hard, tire them out, and just hang on.”

Well that’s exactly what she did. Whittaker took the lead with 700m to go and never looked back, crossing the finish line in a time of 2:02.07 (.43 under the OTQ), lowering her PR by almost an entire second!

The Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier

Going into the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier , Whittaker shared that she and Roisin had been texting back and forth the week before. They are both attending the Brooks PR meet in Seatle after the Olympic Trials and were talking about how cool it would be if they could run at the Trials together and then go straight to Seatle. Both of them were hoping that Willis would finally get an OTQ mark at the NYC Qualifier. 

The gun went off and the pacer brought all the ladies through in 58 seconds for the first quarter. Whittaker, decided to take the lead going into the last lap because she felt the lady in front of her was slowing down. Accelerating down the back stretch, Whittaker set the pace for Willis to follow, as Willis settled right behind. 

“My dad always reminds me that the third 200m you gotta go. It’s always the part people fall back a bit too much. So I was just like, ‘I’m going to go for it this third 200m and if I die, I die, but it’s still probably going to be faster if I didn’t go at all.’”

As they came off the curve and into the final stretch, Roisin gave everything she had and passed Whittaker to break the tape first. 

While Whittaker didn’t win the race, a huge smile shown on her face as she immediately went up to Willis and gave her a hug. She also walked away with a PR of .73 seconds. The sportsmanship seen at the end of the race by Whittaker is what this sport is all about. Sure, it’s great to win, but one might argue it’s even better to witness and even be a part of helping one of your friends reach a big achievement. 

“I saw Roisin pass me, but I was happy for her. I was not upset at all.”

Strengthening the Mind

Stepping up to the starting line as a high schooler racing pros can be tough mentally, but Whittaker has figured out a way to strengthen her mind. She remembers learning the importance of strengthening her mind after racing at the Millrose Games and psyching herself out because of all the great competition around her. In this race she intimidated herself by listening to her mind when it told her, “These girls are so fast, I’m not there.” She has now shifted her mentality to believing and telling herself: “I’m supposed to be here and I have a shot to win.”

For Whittaker, if you tell yourself that you can’t do something, you’ve already predicted the outcome of the race. By going into every race with the mindset that you’re supposed to be there and then by putting yourself in the position to win/run well, you set yourself up for success. Sure, somedays even if you show up with the right attitude and mentality, you may have an off day and run below your potential. However, by showing up with the right attitude and mentality you increase your potential to succeed. For instance, Whittaker had no idea she’d run as fast as she did at the NYC Qualifier, but she went into the race with the mentality that she belonged in the race, put herself in position to challenge for the win, and ended up walking away with a huge PR.

“You have to be confident. Confident in your training, your skills, and confident in yourself.”

Whittaker shared that the week leading up to a race, she’s always visualizing the race over and over in her head. She said that she doesn’t necessarily do it on purpose, but it just comes naturally to her. She visualizes specific details like how fast she wants to run the first 400m. “If I wanna go through the first 400m in 59 [seconds], I visualize myself going through in 59.” She also visualizes the bigger pieces of the race like taking time to see herself running every lap of the race. Now she goes into races with a confidence that she can run well and has started to set higher goals for herself. 

Big Lessons She’s Learned this Year

The biggest lesson Whittaker learned this year is the importance of confidence and believing in yourself. “At the beginning I wasn’t really confident, not knowing what I could really do. I was running very scared ... scared I’d die or I wouldn’t win. Honestly, just overall fear.” These past two years, especially during quarantine, Whittaker feels like she’s grown a lot and become more confident in herself and her abilities. 

The Parent Coach Dynamic

Having your parent as a coach can be difficult sometimes, but for Whittaker, she believes that having her dad also be her coach has been a huge advantage for her. 

“I love having my dad as my coach. It’s such a high level of trust, that it’s kind of hard to find in any coach, so I think it’s really nice having my dad as that kind of coach because I trust in my dad’s workouts and that he’s preparing me.” 

Whittaker attends an all-girls school, Mount De Sales, and her father coaches at the brother school, Mount Saint Joseph, next door. However, her father writes all her training and she usually will go over to the brother school and workout with the boys; this way her dad gets to watch her sessions and give her feedback. They also work with her high school coach, but her dad has control over her training and is always present to see how she’s acclimating to the training. 

College or Turning Professional

I would definitely go to college. I have to remind myself sometimes that running won’t last forever and I’ll need a job after that. Academics are really important to me and also the NCAA experience would be really cool just to go through and experience it. I feel like I can learn a lot from the program, so I definitely am going to go [to college].” 

Message to Other Athletes

Whittaker believes that you should never be afraid to make big goals. Sometimes big goals like making it to the Olympics or Olympic Trials can be intimidating because you have the fear in the back of your mind that you might not get it. However, if you never try, you never know what you’re capable of achieving. 

Her favorite quote is a quote by the author and minister, Norman Vincent Peale, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”