PHILADELPHIA — Kaylin Whitney’s teammates at East Ridge High in Clermont, Fla., will spend Saturday afternoon getting ready for the junior-senior prom. If she were a typical teenager, she probably would have her hair appointment set, plans to meet her friends and their dates for pictures in late afternoon and a reservation for a limo to take them to dinner and the dance.
But Whitney is anything but a typical teenager, and on Saturday her outfit will be red, white and blue. The 17-year-old is expected to run for one of the American squads in the USA vs. the World 4×100-meter relay at the Penn Relays, and the prom is just one the sacrifices she made for turning pro earlier this year.
“I won’t be there for that,” Whitney said. “I’ll [hear] from my friends. They’ll send me pictures, stuff like that.”
Whitney officially left the high school ranks March 12, three days after her birthday, saying she would seek a role on the U.S. team for the world championships in Beijing this summer and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The move is not without precedent; Whitney became the third American prep star in the past several years to sign with Nike, following distance runners Mary Cain (2013) and Alexa Efraimson (2014), and 17 is the same age at which Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix turned pro in 2003, though she already had graduated from high school.
“We already know there’s going to be a lot of people saying there’s no way she’s going to make the Olympics, that this is a crazy decision or whatever,” her coach, Olympic gold medalist Dennis Mitchell, told NBC Sports at the time. “We don’t pay attention to it.”
That Whitney decided to forgo her final two high school seasons — she announced that in January without saying she was turning pro — wasn’t much of a surprise. She broke the world junior records for both the 100 (11.10 seconds) and 200 (22.49) at the U.S. junior championships last summer. Both were top 10 times for any age among U.S. runners in 2014. Her first meet as a professional was earlier this month at the Florida Relays. She anchored the American team to a win in the 4×100 a year after she competed in the high school portion of the meet.
“It’s definitely different,” Whitney said.” I remember back at Florida Relays, some of my friends who were seniors last year are now at the college level. So seeing them in their college uniforms and myself in my Nike uniform is different because I kind of skipped that whole level.”
Whitney likes being able to “focus on me, on what I need to do,” when she goes to meets now rather than showing up with a bunch of teenagers at the break of dawn because her coach has to go to a meeting. She relishes “knowing exactly what time you run. I can better prepare myself instead of being at the track all day. I can focus on me, on what I need to do.”
Still, the adjustment hasn’t been without its travails. On the dais for Friday’s USA Track & Field news conference, she sat next to a trio of 30 year olds — Wallace Spearmon, Deedee Trotter and Justin Gatlin — who have been on the national scene basically since she started kindergarten, and sometimes the age difference is stark. She trains with Gatlin, among others, in Mitchell’s Star Athletics club near Orlando, and whereas her new peers continue their adult lives after morning practice, she knows she has to study most of the afternoon. Whitney takes classes online and expects to earn her diploma no later than this fall.
So she won’t be wearing an elegant red dress Saturday night. She won’t be receiving a corsage. The sacrifice of a social life and the rituals of high school will be worth it if it brings an Olympic spot.
“I don’t think [I’ll go to prom next year either], especially the way things are going this year,” Whitney said before continuing, her voice a bit hushed. “It’s a big year.”