“You don’t pick the 400 — it picks you,” Kaylin Whitney says. “It is one beast of a race and a couple of crazy people do run it, you know, voluntarily.”
Whitney, then, counts herself among the crazies.
The running phenom from Clermont, Florida, splashed onto the track-and-field scene as a teenager with wins at the 2014 World Junior Championships and 2015 Pan-American Games. This month, she will compete in the 400-meter at the US Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. At stake is nothing more than a trip to the Tokyo Olympics in pursuit of a lifelong dream.
Whitney turned pro right out of high school and signed a deal with Nike on her 17th birthday; she also came out as lesbian while still in high school.
Now 23, she is clear-minded heading into trials, but her path leading to this moment hasn’t been free of bumps and debris. When the world stopped because of the pandemic, training and competing also stopped, leaving Whitney time at home to reevaluate her life. In quarantine, she immersed herself in self-analysis that led her to pursue a plant-based diet with hopes it would support her transition to the 400-meter.
Whitney began her career as a sprinter.
“Moving up from just sprints to an event like that really makes you look at everything in your life,” Whitney said. “Your sleep, your training, your relationships, your emotions. If you don’t have all those intact, there’s no way you’re going to make it around that track the way you want to.”
Before leaving for trials, Whitney spoke on the phone with Red Bull about her year of reflection, preparation for the trials, a low point that caused her to reconsider her career and being a trailblazer of the LGBTQ community.
How has your training for the trials been going, and how are you feeling heading into this big event?
It’s really crunch time right now. As an athlete, you know, who has an opportunity to go to the Olympic Games—it’s one of the biggest times of my life right now. It’s the one thing that I’ve been striving for, so you kind of have that time dwindled down and you’re honing into those last few days where you just get the final preparation in, to go make your dreams come true. It can feel pretty surreal and overwhelming at times. But like my coach is always telling me, and my family’s been telling me: Just try to take it one day at a time and continue to work every day to be the best athlete I can be.
It takes a while to really look at yourself and analyze your flaws...
What inspired you to move up from the 100- and 200-meter races to the 400?
It was always something I knew was going to happen eventually. Through everything that was going on in my life and in my career, I was like let’s just pull the plug on it and let’s figure this thing out. It was an event that was talked about a lot, especially as I was growing up on the track. But I’m really happy to have dove all in and really just explore myself deeper. It really helped me look at myself as a person and it helped me fortify my character because, professional sports in general, you can’t be a weak-minded individual.
How much of moving up to 400 was a mental change, and what other adjustments did you need to make?
It takes a while to really look at yourself and analyze your flaws, so just taking the time to look back and see what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. I did struggle with a diet issue; I did struggle with a weight issue for a long time. So, I definitely had to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Hey, I know you like eating this, and doing that, but is that gratification from the meal or is that gratification from going and doing this worth how it might make you feel the next day at training?”
So, to be able to sit back and analyze myself, it took a lot of trial and error. And a lot of times you have to be selfish with yourself. If I think, for one second, I can spend a minute of my time on something other than myself—I can’t. It’s going to be so many other athletes out there doing the exact same thing.
How did you address the weight issue?
I’ve been diving deep into the whole plant-based eating thing. I kind of changed to it during this whole whirlwind of a year last year where we were all basically sitting at home for nine months. That’s when a lot of my self-reflection happened, when I was at home. So I started watching videos and documentaries and reading tons of books and just articles on how it can help with not only weight loss, but just, like, clearing your skin and… almost every medical ailment in the book can change through just what you put into your body. I really made the transition hard when I wasn’t training, because I could really see how my body reacts to it when I’m not expending it so much.
My whole identity and coming out, it was never really a huge thing. In my personal life, I was always a tomboy and into sports or whatever. So, when I did come out, it felt so natural to me and I’ve just always been trying to just live my life authentically.
How has plant-based eating impacted your training and performances?
Honestly, it was everything. At first, the weight shed quick. Within two or three weeks, all the weight I was supposed to have lost through all the years of my coach telling me I need to lose, it just naturally came off. Plant-based foods are just so filling and so full of fiber, so you can eat bounds and bounds of stuff. It just got me down to a perfect, comfortable weight and I kept the diet going. Once I started training, the biggest thing I noticed was my recovery day-to-day. I didn’t feel as sore, I didn’t feel as tired coming into the next workout. I can get massages and go do treatment and I didn’t really have to work through as many injuries and ailments as I did in my previous seasons.
Through all of your research and experimentation, have you landed on any favorite go-to vegan meal options?
I keep it real simple. You know, rice and beans. You can never mess it up. Rice, beans and whatever veggies you want, and call it a day. A lot of people will be like, “Oh, you probably eat all that fake, processed stuff, the Beyond Meat, Impossible stuff. Honestly, no. When you eat mostly plant-based, your taste buds and your mind is shifted, gravitating toward the simple stuff. And it’s crazy, too, because our food bill has never been cheaper — it’s like rice, beans, fruits, vegetables, spices and that’s it.
And when you compete at trials later this month, you’ll be doing it as an out lesbian, during Pride Month. Does this hold significance for you?
So, it was actually one of my first years being professional and we were at our national championships—2015 was the year where they had made gay marriage legal throughout the entire US, so it was pretty cool to be there and see that on the news and be at a place doing what I love during such a time that sort of changed the climate of that aspect in our country. So, you know, it’s always good to be able to support the community and represent, just being able to do what I love, is amazing.
Your path was unconventional: many LGBTQ+ people still struggle with coming out to families or communities they fear will reject them and, sadly, this still happens. But you came out as a teenager and are viewed as a trailblazer at 23. What does it mean to you to be thought of in this way?
My whole identity and coming out, it was never really a huge thing. In my personal life, I was always a tomboy and into sports or whatever. So, when I did come out, it felt so natural to me and I’ve just always been trying to just live my life authentically. A lot of times, it just feels so normal to me that I don’t really sometimes see the gravity of how I can affect other people who are in the same position I was years ago. It feels really good to be able to be that person people can look up to and see, you know, if she can do it, I can.
And how did you know it was time to come out? What prompted you to have that conversation with your family?
My family, like, they were always cool, and my mom had a bunch of gay and lesbian friends that were around us and they were always part of the family. It was never anything super foreign to me or to my family as far as being around and accepting other people in the LGBTQ+ community. It was just something so natural to me, so I was just like, “Oh, okay, like, whenever I choose to date, you know—this is a girl I’m seeing.” I was very fortunate to be in a family where they were as accepting because I know for a lot of people it isn’t necessarily like that all the time.
Now that you’ve been a professional athlete for a while, how do you reflect on your decision to turn pro at such a young age?
I know I didn’t take the conventional route and there were a lot of questions raised. And, still being honest with myself, I know the past two years weren’t as good as I had hoped for. It’s gonna happen, and I feel like the best defining moments as an athlete isn’t always how you compose yourself through your victories, but really how you move through adversity. This is just a test of my character right now.
Through the ups and downs of your personal and professional experiences and accomplishments, what are you proudest of?
I used to be in a place mentally and emotionally where I almost didn’t like what I was doing anymore. Coming from an athlete who loves their sport and loves what they did, to go through the ups and downs of their sport, and to let that affect them to the point where like they were reconsidering doing something else—it was very depressing.
This journey can be lonely a lot of times, and sometimes that’s okay. I always tell myself everything happens for a reason. No matter, how good, or how bad, how crazy it might seem—everything happens exactly how it’s supposed to happen, when it’s supposed to happen, all the time. As long as you stick to your truth and really just follow what makes you happiest every single day, then what more can you ask for?