Kelly Whitley was just a toddler when her paternal grandfather, Homer V. Whitley, died in 1995.
Seventeen years later, the Geneva graduate is reconnected to her grandfather in stirring fashion. On Saturday, Whitley learned that she was added to the May 11 World Triathlon Series race in San Diego, from which the third and final U.S. women’s triathlon qualifier for the 2012 London Olympics will advance.
That honor is all the more meaningful to Whitley considering her grandfather, Homer V. Whitley, swam in the Olympic Trials leading up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
“I can’t believe I’m actually going to be racing in the Olympic Trials and someone in my family has, too,” Whitley said. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”
While the San Diego race will feature worldwide competition, it’s the U.S. contingent – other than the two women who already have qualified – that Whitley will compete against for what, admittedly, is a longshot berth at a spot in London. The 19-year-old Whitley has been training at the Elite Triathlon Academy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with a goal of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, which remains the more realistic timetable.
“Now she’s going to get this opportunity to get this experience of a World Triathlon Series field and an Olympic Trial atmosphere,” said Nick Radkewich, program manager for the academy. “I think that’s going to really pay dividends for her down the road.”
Whitley previously was told she would not be in the San Diego field, but strong performances at races in Brazil and Florida – plus a few international runners dropping out – created the opening. Whitley has battled injuries in recent weeks but said Saturday she will be fit enough to compete.
“All the work has really been put in this winter,” Whitley said. “It was a really tough winter for training, so it’s just mentally preparing and tuning everything up, focusing on all the little things in a race and just getting ready to go.”
Whitley was talking on the phone with her mother when fellow Geneva graduate and Elite Triathlon athlete Kevin McDowell learned of Whitley’s addition to the field and relayed the news. McDowell will join Whitley’s family as part of her support group in San Diego.
“He’s doing really well,” Radkewich said of McDowell, who fought back after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year. “It’s a long road back, but I think he’s traveled quite a bit of it, and he’s looking stronger and stronger all the time.”
Jim Whitley, Kelly Whitley’s father, said Homer V. Whitley competed in the swimming trials against legendary U.S. swimmer and Chicago native Adolph Kiefer, who went on to win the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke in Berlin.
“As far as Kelly is concerned, she knew her grandpa not well because he died in 1995,” Jim Whitley said. “She certainly spent some time with him, but if you ask Kelly what you remember, probably not a ton. It’s a new time. She’s certainly proud to be there.”