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Juliette Whittaker becomes the second American high schooler to break the 2:00 800m barrier

Juliette Whittaker competes at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. (Photo by @kevmofoto)

By Alison Wade

On Friday night at New York City’s Icahn Stadium, high school senior Juliette Whittaker held off a field of professional runners to win the 800m at the Trials of Miles Track Night NYC. Her winning time, 1:59.80, made her only the second American high school girl ever to break the 2:00 barrier. (Mary Cain, who ran 1:59.51 at the 2013 Prefontaine Classic, is the first.)

For a while, it looked like the race might not happen at all, as a storm delayed the start of the event. That worked out well for Whittaker, because she and her father got caught in traffic driving up from their home in Laurel, Maryland, and didn’t arrive at the event until about 40 minutes before her race was originally scheduled to go off.

When the weather cleared, conditions were great for racing other than the wet track, and the field took full advantage. Whittaker’s original plan was to key off of Ajee’ Wilson early in the race, but she adjusted the plan when Wilson, along with U.S. leader Allie Wilson, didn’t show up on the starting line, both late scratches from the race.

Rabbit Rachael Walters hit 400m in 57.12, with Whittaker splitting 57.90, in fourth place. Through 600m, Whittaker ran a close third behind Olivia Baker and Great Britain’s Adelle Tracey. And in the homestretch, Whittaker first picked off Tracey, then Baker in the closing strides. Behind Whittaker, Baker (second, 1:59.90) and Brenna Detra (third, 1:59.94) also broke 2:00 for the first time. And high school junior Sophia Gorriaran, of Rhode Island, finished sixth in 2:00.65, which ties her for fourth on the all-time U.S. high school list outdoors. 

Heading into the race, winning wasn’t on Whittaker’s radar. And even as she sprinted down the homestretch, she was thinking more about her finishing time. “I saw the clock getting closer and closer to two minutes and I was like, ‘I want to get under so badly,’” she told Fast Women in a phone call yesterday.

For a while, Whittaker, 18, has had a large “Sub 2:00” written on her bathroom mirror, along with a smaller “and the national record.” But until she missed the record by just 0.29 seconds on Friday, Whittaker knew the high school record was 1:59-something, but she couldn’t have told you what that something was. “Now, after seeing how close I was, I would love to get it at some point before I’m done with high school, but I also won’t stress out about it,” she said.

Whittaker later wrote an Instagram post about some of the challenges she has faced this year, including losing her grandfather, a stress fracture, and getting Covid, which she said has made her more resilient and patient. “I am so incredibly proud of what got me here and even more excited to see where it can take me,” she wrote. “Here’s to breaking more barriers!”

After the race, Whittaker exchanged hugs and congratulations with her competitors, did a post-race interview, and then she was back to work, because she had agreed in advance to pace the high school mile without fully grasping that the events were only 40 minutes apart, thanks in part to the more condensed schedule, due to the storm delay.

Whittaker thought she might just run 600 or 800m of the mile, but she felt surprisingly good going through 800m in 2:16 that she stayed in the race through 1000m, splitting roughly 2:51 before dropping out. She later wondered what would have happened if she had stayed in the race, won by Pennsylvania’s Mia Cochran in 4:42.43. “I’m sure I would have started to feel it in the last 400m,” she said.

Whittaker has more racing to come this season, but first she has another big event on Saturday—her graduation from Mount de Sales Academy. Whittaker is headed to Stanford in the fall, where she’s part of a stellar recruiting class that also includes Roisin Willis, who broke the indoor 800m U.S. high school record in February, running 2:00.06.

Whittaker plans to race the mile at the Brooks PR Invitational on June 15, and the 800m at the USATF U20 Championships beginning June 24. She has qualified to run at the senior national meet, against the pros, but the two meets will take place simultaneously, so she had to make a choice. A top two finish at the U20 Championships will earn her a spot at the World U20 Championships, which take place in Cali, Colombia, in early August. Plus it didn’t hurt that she knew Willis was running the U20 Championships as well.

And now Whittaker says she can shift her focus a bit. “I think now, after finally breaking 2:00, I won’t be as focused on a time but kind of just being a good competitor and racing well. Hopefully that will also bring about fast times, but the fast times will maybe now just be a plus.”

In addition to hopefully extending her track season until August, Whittaker is looking forward to spending time with her family (she’s the youngest of four siblings) and hanging out with her friends before they all head off to college.

At Stanford, Whittaker will be coached by J.J. Clark, who famously coached his wife, Jearl Miles-Clark, and two sisters (Hazel Clark and Joetta Clark Diggs) to an 800m sweep at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. In addition to track, Whittaker, who was an Eastbay Cross Country finalist in December, plans to run cross country in college, but she’s not sure yet how much of a focus it will be.

Though Whittaker is running times comparable to those of other young athletes who turned pro right out of high school, she never seriously entertained the idea. Getting a good education is important to her, but so is the overall college experience. “I really wanted that experience with the team and in the NCAA,” she said. “Right now, I obviously have a high school team, but I go to a lot of the meets alone and I even practice at different times sometimes. Just having a team, and such a talented team, too, has excited me so much about college, and I really want to experience that.”