ON FRIDAY, MAY 20, high schooler Juliette Whittaker had to deal with all kinds of traffic and ultimately she found a way to break through. The 18-year-old senior (Mount de Sales, Catonsville, Maryland) first had to navigate a traffic jam on the drive up to the Track Night NYC meet, arriving less than an hour before the original start time of the women’s 800.
Then she had to work her way through a crowded field in the actual race. She made it work (thanks in part to a rain-delay to the meet) and ran her way up the all-time list, clocking 1:59.80 for the win and becoming the second-fastest prep of all time. She now trails only Mary Cain’s ’13 HSR of 1:59.51.
Whittaker executed a near-perfect race plan, charging down the homestretch to pass a solid field. “I’ve watched the race like 100 times already, and there’s nothing I would tell her that she should have done differently,” says Whittaker’s father, Paul, of her thrilling win over pros Olivia Baker (1:59.90) and Brenna Detra (1:59.94).
Paul Whittaker is also his daughter’s coach, and they’ve been focusing on going sub-2:00 for the past year. They knew that the field at Icahn Stadium on NYC’s Randalls Island would present the perfect opportunity.
“I really just wanted to hang on the first 400, sitting on whoever was in the lead pack, and then in that third 200 I wanted to push the pace a little more, but still drifting off the people in the lead,” Juliette says. “And then I just wanted to kick home that last 100 and really focus on getting my feet down as fast as I could and get to the line.”
After a 57.90 opening lap, Whittaker moved up through the field. She didn’t catch Baker until a stride or so before the line, and she wasn’t even sure that she’d won the race. Still, seeing the clock read 1:59 was enough to put a huge smile on her face. “That’s been a goal for so long,” she says. “I was stuck at 2:01. I’d run 2:01 so many times, getting closer and closer, but just not quite there. So just to finally see 1:59 on the board was such a great feeling.”
Whittaker, who won high-profile prep miles this year at Millrose and the Penn Relays, has always had a knack for tactics. “She’s a smart racer, she has great instincts,” says her father, a Georgetown alum who helped the Hoyas finish 2nd in the 4×8 at the ’92 NCAA Indoor. “She has a nose for the line and she knows how to position herself to race well. She knows how to stay out of trouble.”
Last year she qualified for the Olympic Trials, where she clocked a near PR 2:01.20 in the first round. She followed that up with a 2:01.30 in the semis — missing a spot in the final by a single place. “I really did not feel much pressure at all,” Whittaker says of her Hayward Field experience. “I think it was because I was just so happy to be there. Racing all those pros I had the mentality that I had nothing to lose and I wanted to go out there and give it my best shot.”
Despite some setbacks this season — a stress fracture in a toe in December and a brief bout of COVID in March — she’s continued her momentum, winning the New Balance Indoor mile in 4:37.23 (putting her No. 4 on the all-time list) and setting an indoor HSR 2:39.41 in the 1000. After winning the mile at Penn, she came back the next day to finish 2nd to Sage Hurta in the pro women’s 800, clocking yet another 2:01 (2:01.55 to be exact).
Paul Whittaker thinks if he encouraged his daughter to be more aggressive at Penn she might have joined the sub-2:00 club already. “I told her, from now on race to win, no matter who’s in the race,” he says. “Even if it’s pro runners, don’t be afraid to go after it.” Then a dazzling workout of 2 x 600 in 1:26, with about 10 minutes rest, followed a few days later by a 53-point split on the 4×4 at her conference meet on May 14 (after having already won the 800, 1600 and 3200) let him know that “she was ready to pop a fast one.”
Dad’s coaching philosophy was shaped by his college mentor, the legendary Frank Gagliano. “Gags’ motto was always strength plus speed equals. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done with Juliette,” Whittaker says. “Once we figured out how good her potential was as a freshman, I pretty much went with the Gags formula.”
Juliette will head to Stanford in the fall, where she’ll be teammates with friend and rival Roisin Willis (Stevens Point, Wisconsin), who set the indoor HSR of 2:00.06 this winter. Along with junior Sophia Gorriaran (Brown, Providence, Rhode Island), who has run 2:00.58, they make up a formidable trio of half milers.
“The quote ‘iron sharpens iron’ really relates to us a ton,” Juliette says. “We’re always helping each other and it helps that we’re all such great friends, too. We all just rejoice when one of us excels.”
Though her official high school season has ended (private and parochial schools don’t compete in the Maryland state meet), Whittaker will run a couple of 1500/mile races before returning to the 800 at the USATF Junior Championships in Eugene in June to try for a spot at the World U20 in Cali, Colombia.
And yes, she has her eye on Cain’s 1:59.51 “It’s definitely a tough record, but seeing my time now and realizing that I’m only 3 tenths away, gives me a lot of confidence,” she says. “It’ll definitely be a goal, but not too much to stress about. I’m very happy with 1:59.”