By Jerry Briggs
Special report, for The JB Replay
This time last year, Texas A&M swimmer Shaine Casas had a good feeling about his chances of making the U.S. Olympic team.
Even with all the uncertainty brought on by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the former grade-school-age prodigy with the McAllen Swim Club and prep star at McAllen High School knew what he had to do to get himself ready.
Then, when officials made the decision to push the Tokyo Games back by a year, Casas just shrugged and tried to re-set mentally.
“Initially, whenever it first happened, it’s frustration and kind of like disappointment, because I felt confident in the way I was swimming,” Casas said in a zoom conference on Monday afternoon. “I thought I had a great shot, regardless. But, in hindsight, looking at it, I realized that it gave me more time.
“It just gave me more time to take out the guess-work … And now I can be confident and sure in myself that I can make the team, and that I’ve taken basically every opportunity to do it.
“So, I guess I’m satisfied that I get this other chance, a year later, even though, obviously, I would have loved to (have been) an Olympian a year ago. But if I can make it next week, you know, that will still be worth the wait.”
Casas, one of the fastest-rising stars in American swimming, will get his chance when the second and final phase of the Olympic Trials opens Sunday and runs through June 20 in Omaha, Nebraska.
How good is he?
In a testament to his versatility and athleticism, the rising senior at A&M has qualified for eight events, including the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 100 and 200 backstroke, and the 200 individual medley.
“He could swim any of those, which is pretty incredible by itself,” Aggies coach Jay Holmes said. “But the way the order of events is (laid out), we really have to choose. And so, the 100- and the 200-back are the ones we know he’s going to be in, at least right now, as of today.
“We do have some options, but in the order of events, the 200 IM and the 200 back are almost impossible to do together. Ryan Lochte’s done it in the trials before, but he’s incredibly seasoned. We know Shaine is capable of doing that double.
“But also, we feel like we really need to choose the best places for him to make the team.
“Also, you have prelims, semifinals and finals, so the 100 and 200 back are the only ones we know of. I doubt he is going to try to double the 200 IM and the 200 back. You just have to be so elite. To do that back to back, with very little rest (in between), is crazy almost.”
With the 100 and 200 backstrokes dominated by 2016 Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy and several others who are among the fastest in the world, Casas will face the ultimate test of his readiness. Only two athletes will make the Olympic team in what are considered his strongest events.
Even so, Olympic swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines said he thinks Casas can make the team.
“If I was a betting man, I definitely would not bet against Shaine Casas,” Gaines said after Casas won three events at the NCAA Championships earlier this year. “There’s just no way I would bet against that. I think he’s going to make it in one or two events.”
Born in San Diego, Calif., Casas moved with his family to South Texas, where he took up the sport as a grade-schooler in the McAllen Swim Club.
Former MSC coach Roxanne Balducci said in a telephone interview that, from her recollection, Casas started with her team at about age eight and continued through 14.
“He came so many times a week because he was also into basketball at the time,” said Balducci, who lives in Florida. “So, he would swim some days, go to basketball some days. Either come to swimming late or leave swimming early to go to basketball, because that was his other love, and he just kept getting better and better.
“He went to (state competition in) TAGS, at 12-14 (and) then he made the Southern Zone team. He was just very strong for his age. You know, it took a while to build up his strokes. But once he did that, he just took off.”
His rise was rapid. In 2017, Casas took second place in a couple of events at the Class 6A state meet for McAllen High School. A little more than a year later, he was swimming on scholarship at Texas A&M.
By the summer of 2019, Casas really turned heads, winning a title in the 100-meter backstroke at the Phillips 66 Summer Nationals. He also placed second in the 200 back and the 200 IM.
The pandemic set him back, but only briefly, because he more than made up for lost time in March when he won three individual titles for the Aggies at the NCAA meet.
Given his body of work, Casas has seriously challenged the notion that swimmers from the Valley can’t compete at the highest level. Balducci acknowledged that it is rare for the RGV to produce a swimmer like Casas.
“Unfortunately, yes,” she said. “You know, it would be nice if we had the same type of facilities that other places in the state had, or other places in the country. But, you know, if you are determined enough, if you have got that little extra spark, nothing will stop you.
“You have stories like (former three-time Olympian) Ian Crocker. He came from somewhere in New England, from a four-lane pool. If you’ve got what it takes, and you’re willing to put in the effort, it can be done. I agree. It is rare. It would be nice if it happened a little more often.”
Hector Becerra, who lives in the Valley and manages the McAllen Swim Club today, said Casas’ rise in stature can only help an area hard hit by the virus over the past year.
“We’re rooting for him,” Becerra said. “The fact that somebody from our area is at that level, is really exciting for us. If he were to make the Olympic team, it would just … it would generate a lot of buzz, a lot of interest for us down here.
“Not to mention it would really stir a lot of enthusiasm in a lot of our (club) kids. Coming out of a pandemic … I can’t think of any way better to lift the spirits of our South Texas region, than to have him make the team.”
Likewise, the A&M program could use a boost in its battle with Texas for the top swimmers in the state. Guided by outgoing coach Eddie Reese, UT has long held the upper hand, in terms of dominance in college men’s swimming.
If Casas can make some noise next week, perhaps young athletes will start to look at the Aggies differently.
“Shaine is just one of those rare talents,” Holmes said. “I’ve certainly never coached anyone like him, as versatile as he is. For us, it’s fun to coach him, because you can put him in almost any situation and he’s going to be trying to figure out ways to win it.
“He’s very confident. He always has been very confident, even coming out of McAllen. McAllen has had some swimmers go D-I before. But, coming out of McAllen with the times he had, and being able to do the things he was doing, already, we thought he could be pretty special.
“He’s a fun guy to coach. You could put him in almost any situation, and he really believes he can beat just about anybody, anytime, in almost anything.”
Casas said he feels more confident in himself now than this time last year.
“I have more high competition experience,” he said. “Going into it last year, my biggest meet was (2019) nationals, and that was more of a light year. You know there was not too many superstars there. So it was just me, doing my thing, and I was able to win.
“ … Now having the NCAA championship, and winning at the biggest stage collegiately, I think that gave me confidence at practice, racing at a high level, that I needed for this meet.”
Going into the NCAA meet in North Carolina a few months ago, Casas was expected to win, and he delivered with victories in the 100 back, the 200 back and the 200 IM. He said if he hadn’t been able to pull that off, he might have felt more unease going into the Trials.
Asked pointedly what gives him the confidence that he will shine the brightest “with the lights as bright as they’re going to be,” Casas didn’t hesitate in delivering his answer.
“That’s just what I do,” he said. “That’s what I train to do. It’s what I plan to do. I visualize doing that, so … “ Casas didn’t finish the thought, but he did continue to address what the meet means to him in the big picture.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve been talking about this for years. Like, whenever I won nationals and I entered kind of the room for discussion about possible Olympians or medalists … you know, I had been preparing for that and planning for that, and that motivated me every single day at practice.
“I want to make it. I want to do well. I want to represent the U.S. So, I’m excited to hopefully enter the new stage of my life where people know who I am, and my name becomes an international name, and I’m not just a kid, swimming at Texas A&M.
“Maybe,” he added, “I’m the guy that swam for Team USA and did well.”
Olympic Trials schedule
June 13-20, at Omaha, Nebraska
Eye on Shaine Casas
Men’s 100 backstroke — Preliminaries in the morning and semifinals at night, on Monday, June 14. Finals on Tuesday night, June 15.
Men’s 200 backstroke — Preliminaries in the morning and semifinals at night on Thursday, June 17. Finals on Friday, June 18.