Texas A&M junior swimmer Shaine Casas was initially frustrated when his chance at making the Olympics in 2020 was dashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A year later, Casas said he was glad for the additional 12 months of preparation.
Casas and nine other Aggie swimmers will compete in the second wave of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials beginning Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska. In total, 31 Aggie swimmers and divers will undergo the trials through both waves of competition.
“When it first happened, it was frustration and just kind of disappointment, because I felt confident and I was swimming very well, so I thought that I had a great shot regardless that time,” Casas said. “But in hindsight after looking at it, I realized that it gave me more time and kind of just gave me an opportunity to really work and take out the guesswork in it.”
Casas made the most of the extra time, lowering his school record times in the 100-yard backstroke (43.87 seconds), 200 backstroke (1:35.75), 200 butterfly (1:38.69) and 200 individual medley (1:38.95). He won the NCAA championships in the 200 IM and 100 and 200 backstrokes, the latter with his school-record performance. He also won the Commissioners Trophy at the Southeastern Conference Championships as the meet’s top point scorer.
“I have a lot more high competition experience, I’d like to say, because going into it last year, my biggest meet was nationals and that was more of a light year,” Casas said. “There wasn’t too many superstars there. It was kind of just me doing my thing, and I was able to win and swim really well there. At least having the NCAA Championship and winning at the biggest stage in the US collegiately, I think that gave me all the confidence and practice racing at a high level that I needed for this meet.”
If pressure mounts during the trials, Casas said it will come from the long buildup to get to this moment.
“I’ve been working for this for years,” he said. “It’s your goal, your dream to make Team USA. There definitely is a lot of pressure, and I’d say if it hadn’t been for this past NCAAs — the pressure to win and for me to go and win three times — I think I might be hurting a little bit mentally, because it definitely was an adjustment for me to go into a meet like that and everybody expect me to win and expect me to perform. I’m glad that I did.”
On the women’ side, A&M freshman Chloe Stepanek was locked down in her hometown of Northport, New York, when the pandemic first hit. She wasn’t able to train for two months, then she gained access to a weight room and rigged a bungee-cord system to the fence in her backyard, so she could swim “laps” in her family pool. She also got some brief training in the pool with her club team before coming to A&M last summer.
“Luckily, I think for me, a lot of things worked out in my favor and I had a really good college year,” Stepanek said. “I dropped a ton of time and got really good training in, so I almost think that the COVID year for me played to my benefit, because I’ve grown so much as a swimmer. I’ve gotten really good training in and goals that I had back in August that were more of a reach or further out are more of a reality now going into trials.”
Stepanek won the 100 freestyle B final at the SEC meet in 48.21 and took fourth in the 200 freestyle with a personal-best time of 1:43.82 at the NCAA Championships. She also was a two-time SEC freshman swimmer of the week this season.
Now she’s excited to compete against the nation’s best for a spot on arguably the world’s greatest swim team.
“When teams walk up at the pool deck at the Olympics it’s like, ‘Oh, cool, there’s Canada, there’s this, there’s that,’ but when the United States walks in, it’s a very different [reaction],” she said. “We are such a well-known team with tons of talent.”
NOTES — Other current and former A&M swimmers set to compete in Wave II at the trials include Adam Koster and Jonathan Tybur on the men’s side and Lisa Bratton, Bethany Galat, Sarah Gibson, Breeja Larson, Taylor Pike and Caroline Theil on the women’s. ... A&M women’s diver Charlye Campbell is also set to compete at the diving trials beginning Sunday in Indianapolis.