Shaine Casas Poised to Step Into Spotlight at NCAA Championships

shaine casas
Shaine Casas -- Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Shaine Casas Poised to Step Into Spotlight at NCAA Championships

(From March’s Swimming World Magazine)

Before the summer of 2019, Texas A&M’s Shaine Casas wasn’t exactly impressing anyone with his swimming. But if his performances since then are any indication, the end results could be spectacular. His coaches see his potential as basically unlimited, and recent history makes it tough to disagree. As for Casas, he has similarly lofty expectations for himself.

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In the spring of 2019, Shaine Casas was showing promising ability, but nothing that indicated that the then-19-year-old would win a national title in a few months. Certainly, no one—at least no one outside of his inner circle—imagined that Casas would soon become the country’s best collegiate swimmer.

The last time the United States held a major selection meet, the 2018 summer nationals, Casas was a total non-factor. He swam five events and qualified for two B-finals, one C-final and two D-finals. At his first NCAA Championships eight months later, Casas finished as high as 11th in the 200 fly in two consolation finals appearances.

Now, the 21-year-old McAllen, Texas, native and Texas A&M junior enters the college championship season with the top time in the country in four events while threatening American records. He has never competed internationally, but he has become a contender, if not a favorite, to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. And the person least surprised by all that success?

Shaine Casas.


Just Give Him a Chance

“I definitely believed I was talented, and I was very ambitious,” Casas said. “I just felt like I didn’t have the same resources or opportunities as other swimmers. I felt like I had to wait to get my chance. I had to move for a summer just to get a chance to train with a really good club program doing doubles and a somewhat thought-out and methodical weight program with Nitro. I always felt like I was at a disadvantage until I got to the level that everybody was at, and I felt once the playing field was even, I could really explode and put distance on people.”

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Shaine Casas — Photo Courtesy: Craig Bisacre / Texas A&M Athletics

Since the summer of 2019, Casas has been on a hot streak, seemingly surpassing every expectation in sight, and he oozes confidence in his abilities. He’s flown somewhat under the radar since not a single national-level meet has been held since U.S. nationals in August 2019, but it was at that meet when Casas made his career breakthrough, posting massive time drops to win the 100-meter back and finish second in the 200 back (behind Austin Katz) and the 200 IM (behind Ryan Lochte).

In his sophomore season swimming for the Aggies (2019-20), Casas was masterful. He won SEC titles in the 200-yard back and 200 IM and finished second in the 100 back to reigning 50-meter back World champion Zane Waddell. He led off four A&M relays, including a victorious effort in the 200 medley, and the team finished in an impressive second place. He was set up to star at NCAAs, seeded first in the 200 back and 200 IM and second in the 400 IM.

But when the NCAA meet was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Casas lost his big chance. Soon after, he lost another opportunity when the Olympic Trials and Olympics were postponed to 2021. Carrying so much momentum and knowing he had such a huge chance to prove himself on a significant stage, the cancellations were a severe bummer.

“I felt like I didn’t have any closure, really,” Casas said. “I was pretty frustrated, and I was upset for a while because I felt like I was robbed. Going into a meet seeded first, there was a good possibility I could have won. I could have lost, also, but I felt like I had a lot to prove that season.”


Shaine Casas is Something Special

When Texas A&M men’s head coach Jay Holmes and associate head coach Jason Calanog were interviewed together, they recalled their first impression of Casas upon his arrival in College Station in the summer of 2018, and both men laughed.

“He broke his ankle at U.S. junior camp, so he was on crutches for six to eight weeks when he got here, so he wasn’t doing anything. He was just a lazy bum just hanging out at practice, just pulling,” Calanog said. “He really went to nationals (that year)—I swear to God… what was it, Jay, after like three or four weeks of training? And he went all best times and was (the top 18-and-under finisher at nationals).

“Really, that’s when we knew that we had something special.”

The coaches described the swimmer they now see every day in practice as a relatively normal college swimmer who “just happens to be super-talented at swimming”and a good teammate who rarely takes things too seriously, but he can be stubborn and complain about a set he doesn’t like.

“His brain is really like a 10-year-old, but he’s in a 21-year-old body,” said Calanog, who actually believes that Casas has the same natural talent and abilities of a high school swimmer he once coached in Jacksonville: a certain Caeleb Dressel.

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Shaine Casas at 2019 U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“He just doesn’t know his potential yet because it’s literally limitless. With strokes, distances, he has no idea. And we have no idea. We’re just trying to prepare him the best we can,” Calanog said. “I never thought I would have another chance to coach somebody this good,” he added.

Exactly what boundaries can he push?

He’s already within striking distance of American records in backstroke and butterfly short course, and his coaches insist he’s even better long course. His weak stroke? Not breaststroke. “He talks a lot of trash to our breaststrokers,” Holmes said. “He has gotten up and raced them a couple times in practice and given them all they can handle.”

But remember, Casas is just 21, a college junior with untapped capability, but a long process of growth ahead of him as he seeks to join the swimming world’s elite ranks.

Even as they marvel at his capabilities, Holmes and Calanog want to make sure they help set him up for sustained improvement and consistency. That means teaching him skills in mental preparation, and Calanog has been applying what he learned from his days at Bolles working with Dressel, Ryan Murphy and Joseph Schooling. Sometimes, they have to preach patience.

“We encourage Shaine to grow, but we’re not trying to have him grow up too fast because he needs to be able to go through this process himself and be able to figure all this stuff out,” Holmes said. “We’re not trying to run too fast here. We want Shaine to be Shaine and grow up and experience this. I really believe the older he gets, the more dangerous he’s going to get. It’s going to be fun for us.”


Casas Coming Back from COVID-19—And Dominating

Shortly after returning to swimming in late spring last year, Casas had to take another break from the pool when he contracted COVID-19. While he did not suffer from severe symptoms, he found coming back to training for a second time to be even more difficult, and briefly, he even questioned whether he could return to his usual form. But as the college season began, those questions quickly went by the wayside as he put together brilliant performances meet after meet.

“I think my physical maturity has finally matched my talent,” Casas said. “I felt like whenever I got here, my strokes were fine, but I was too weak, too slow off the walls, not enough power in and out of turns. I really focused in the weight room, lost fat. I’ve had a dramatic physical change.”

The highlights from Casas’ brilliant fall included a stunning 200-yard fly at a dual meet against TCU. Casas had come to college as a butterflyer, and his only junior nationals title had come in the 100-meter fly as a 17-year-old in 2017 when he tied for first with Alexei Sancov in 53.24. He swam mostly butterfly through his freshman year before his backstroke exploded and suddenly become his best stroke. Still, he was training fly, so he expected that stroke might catch up to his backstroke eventually.

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Casas swimming backstroke — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“I went about a second-and-a-half faster than I thought I was going. I thought I was going about 1:40 or 1:41-low, and I looked, and I was 1:39-low, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s pretty cool.’ I didn’t really know my butterfly yet, but I’ve kept at it, and it’s finally gotten to the level of my backstroke,” Casas said. “That was just a random stellar swim that I had. I honestly couldn’t explain that one to you. It just happened.”

And then, at A&M’s Art Adamson Invitational, Casas swam the 200-yard IM in the same pool where Dressel had annihilated the American record (1:38.13) almost three years earlier, and Casas blasted a 1:38.95 200 IM, good for the third-fastest performance ever.

“When Caeleb went that, I was like, ‘That pool record might stay for 20, 30, 40 years,’” Calanog said. “When (Casas) goes 1:38 two years after, I was like, ‘Oh my God, Jay! Maybe that thing’s actually going to be broken!’”

At the SEC championships in February, Casas posted a 1:31.28 200 free that moved him to 11th all-time in the event, and at the American Short Course Championships a week later, he swam a 1:38.69 200 fly that improved him to fourth all-time. At this month’s NCAA championships in Greensboro, N.C., Casas could have chosen to challenge top-notch competition in the either of those races (like Kieran Smith and Drew Kibler in the 200 free and a deep field led by Trenton Julian in the 200 fly), but instead, he opted to swim the three events he’s almost certain to win—and where he could chase after some impressive records.

At NCAAs, Casas will take his shot at Dressel’s 200 IM American record, and he’s the top seed by more than two seconds. He also holds the top seed in the 100 back (43.87) by almost a second and in the 200 back (1:36.54) by more than a second and a half, and in both events, he ranks fourth all-time.

Shaine Casas Season-Best Times (Rank This Season)

  • 100 free, 41.68 (4th)
  • 200 free, 1:31.28 (3rd)
  • 100 back, 43.87 (1st)
  • 200 back, 1:36.54 (1st)
  • 100 fly, 44.91 (=5th)
  • 200 fly, 1:38.69 (2nd)
  • 200 IM, 1:38.95 (1st)
  • 400 IM, 3:38.22 (4th)

And in his lone long course racing opportunity this year, at the TYR Pro Swim Series in early January, Casas showed some impressive form there. He won the 100 fly in 51.91 and also finished second in both the 100 (54.32) and 200 back (1:58.04), on both occasions behind Olympic champion Murphy, who Casas was racing head-to-head for the very first time.


The Killer Instinct

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Casas pre-race — Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

After the college season, Casas intends to chase the Olympics. In the 100-meter back, his 52.72 from 2019 nationals made him the seventh-fastest American of all-time in the event, and he finished the year ranked fifth globally and second among Americans behind Murphy. His 200 back time of 1:55.79 was good for sixth in the world in 2019, third among Americans behind Murphy and Katz. And he bears watching in the butterfly events, as well.

But on top of that, Casas has started to build that edge, the killer instinct you see in all the great champions—that little bit extra that could push him over the top.

Take his mentality regarding training and racing: “Honestly, it starts months before,” he said. “As the season starts, you’re thinking about, ‘Oh, what’s this guy doing? How hard is this guy pushing himself?’ It’s just the little details and how you can beat them at every single thing so that when it comes down to it, you just don’t lose.

“There’s a physical part—just outwork your competition—and then the mental part, which is even more important, just knowing and being 100% confident that you can beat them, no matter what. Even if they want it, you just want it more.”

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Still, Casas is a normal college kid who loves playing video games whenever he gets the chance—“I have a big range of games,” he said—and he loves his three brothers, Sean, Seth and Jimmy, and his mother, Monica. It’s just that every chance he’s had to race in the pool over the past two years, he has simply been astonishing.

Of course, COVID has limited those chances, and Casas never got to show just how good he could be in 2020. But when those championship meets do return, Casas will get his chance to close out a season on his own terms.

“I feel like a legacy I would love to have is to be just the guy that could do anything, basically,” Casas said. “I’m no Michael Phelps. There can only be one. I just want to be known as the kid that just always seemed to flip the switch and keep going, even when people thought it was done, or keep surprising them, even when they thought they had seen everything.”