“IT WAS INSANE.” Looking back on the history-making campaign that earned her our High School Girls Athlete of the Year honors (see box for the voting below), Juliette Whittaker (Mt. de Sales, Catonsville, Maryland) admits that it shocked even her.
“During the season I definitely was surprised and just really happy about all of my achievements,” says the middle distance star. “But it was after the fact that I realized, ‘Wow! I really did that.’ I think if I had told my freshman-year self that I would achieve these things by my senior year, I probably wouldn’t believe her. I’m still kind of in disbelief.”
Whittaker, who has now moved on to Stanford, made her biggest impact in the 800. Already No. 7 in prep history with her 2:01.15 as a junior, she became the second prep to break the 2:00 barrier with her 1:59.80 in late May, topping a solid pro field in New York City.
Then, at the USATF Junior Championships in Eugene a month later she took down Mary Cain’s national record of 1:59.51 with a 1:59.04.
The 18-year-old proved no slouch over four laps either, winning the New Balance Indoor title in 4:37.23, taking the Brooks PR race in 4:36.24 and hitting a PR 4:36.15 in between.
All told, only once did a prep beat Whittaker to the line in a major race, the season-ending World Juniors in Cali, Colombia, where Whittaker ran 2:00.18 to earn bronze behind the gold of close friend (and current Stanford teammate) Roisin Willis.
In fact, Whittaker credits Willis with being a major inspiration for her season. “I owe so much to her. I remember when I saw her run 2-flat indoors in that Boston meet. I was like, ‘Wow! I think I can do that too.’ That inspired me and motivated me a ton. Just seeing her excel and going to USAs together and then to Worlds together, it was constantly pushing me to succeed.”
Together with junior Sophia Gorriaran (Brown, Providence, Rhode Island), it was a dizzying year in which the 800’s recordbooks were torn asunder. Willis (Stevens Point, Wisconsin) finished with a best of 1:59.13. Gorriaran’s best of 2:00.58 was the best ever run indoors by someone under 18.
Says Whittaker, “It was an exciting time just to be a part of. Just going through it all with them made me appreciate it so much more. I felt grateful and excited about what we were achieving.” By year’s end, they had collectively run 8 of the 10 fastest 800s in prep history.
For Whittaker, her senior season was the culmination of an auspicious prep career. Her track bloodline runs strong. Father/coach Paul ran for Georgetown; in ’92 he ran the fastest leg on the 4×8 that placed 2nd in the NCAA Indoor. Mom Jill Pellicoro was a Hoya hurdler. Sister Isabella is an Ivy League 400 champ for Penn with a best of 51.92.
So perhaps it was no big surprise when the baby of the family placed 2nd at New Balance as a frosh with her 2:05.25. She improved to 2:03.01 as a soph in the short ’20 indoor campaign, hitting 4:43.89 in the mile. Last year she reached bests of 2:01.15 and 4:38.65. The former took her to the Olympic Trials, where she placed 6th in her semi. The latter won the Brooks PR race.
Throughout this season, Whittaker had to face the same challenge as many elite preps: balancing her own goals with the desire to chip in as much as possible for the high school team. “It was definitely hard. I had to miss a few meets with my high school to go out of state to run in more competitive fields. I really value my team and being a team player. It’s hard to leave that and not being able to help as much as I would have liked.”
Still, her senior year, Whittaker won Conference titles in cross country as well as the 800/1600/3200 and 4×4 in track (private schools in Maryland can’t compete in the state finals).
The pinnacle of Whittaker’s season would seem to be the national record, but she says the magic moment for her actually came earlier. “Honestly, breaking 2:00 for the first time when I was in New York. Obviously, I ended up going faster, but 2:00 is such a big barrier to everyone running the 800. To overcome that barrier the first time took a lot mentally and physically. I was working very hard in practice, but I had to go into that race with the belief that I could do it. I also had COVID before that and a stress fracture, so I had to overcome a lot of things to get there.
“When I finally broke it, I was just so happy. I was proud of what I had done to get there. It was an amazing experience.”
When the 1:59.04 came, Whittaker admits she was caught off-guard: “I don’t think I was expecting it warming up. I was feeling a little heavy in my legs and my strides didn’t feel that great. I went into it a little nervous, but also, I had been doing a lot of workouts that showed I was in that ballpark. I did just come off a mile at the Brooks PR, so I wasn’t sure if that would affect me. But it ended up working out in the end.”
Closing her season at the World Juniors in Colombia had Whittaker a little bit anxious. “I definitely realized how hard it was going to be. It was a long season. I started cross country training back in June and was racing 14 months later in August. So I was worried about that and the back-to-back rounds. I had never done that before. It was a learning experience.”
All the same, making the podium was a big moment. “Just repping, USA on my jersey, that’s something that everyone always dreams about. To be able to do that alongside Roisin was so amazing.”
Now Whittaker has moved on from her father’s coaching and is part of Coach J.J. Clark’s powerhouse Cardinal program: “I’m training with the cross country group, so there’s definitely that strength aspect, but I’m also doing a lot more speed than I think I did in high school. Also, I didn’t lift in high school and we’re lifting here, so there’s another change that’s been fun to get started on.”
She expects to see action not just in the 800, but also in the 1500 as well as the 4×4. “We’re all pretty excited to see what I could do in the mile or 1500,” she says. “I did it a few times in high school, but I don’t think I ever got a really great race out of it.”
Now considered one of the brightest prospects on the NCAA scene, she acknowledges that her prep accolades may add some pressure. But she says, “People will probably have expectations, but honestly, I think it’s kind of fun, going into college now, I’m more the underdog, you know? A freshman and I haven’t been in the NCAA yet. I feel like there’s not really a ton of pressure just because I’m so young.”