MISSION — “… he’s destroying the field.”
Broadcaster Rowdy Gains’ voice blared over NBC Sports as Shaine Casas did just that — annihilating the field during the 100-meter backstroke. His time of 52.72 seconds earned him a gold medal at the Phillips 66 National Championship. It was the seventh-fastest American all-time mark and the fastest time for an American teen — ever.
“I watched one of the races,” Casas said of the 100-meter backstroke race, “it was crazy to watch. It wasn’t the way I saw it in my head — in my head the guys were right on me, but I had a pretty big lead.”
His time moved him past No. 8 Jacob Pebley, who recorded a 52.95 mark at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Games, and swimming legend Michael Phelps, who dropped to No. 9 on that list with his 2007 U.S. National Trials time of 53.01 seconds. Ryan Murphy holds the all-time mark at 51.85 seconds in the 2016 Olympics.
Casas also took a second place in the 200-meter backstroke, coming in only behind another U.S. swimming legend, Ryan Lochte.
“That was a really cool experience,” Casas said of his races at Nationals. “It was also a humbling experience. I never thought I would be racing these guys, because they were pretty old at the time when I was watching them,” he said. “I thought they would be out of there by then, but Lochte is still going and that’s cool for him.
“It’s crazy to think what happened. It spiraled so quickly in my favor, which is nice. It doesn’t always happen that way.”
Not long after Casas’ breakthrough performance into the American swimming spotlight, he was back home in Mission, enjoying some down time with family and friends. A group of them welcomed him home when he arrived at McAllen International Airport.
USA Swimming published a story on its website, stating, “No one predicted Shaine Casas would emerge as the most promising male backstroker at the Phillips 66 National Championships.”
Casas days at the national event with his Texas A&M teammates also brought him a second in the 200-meter individual medley and a third in the 4×200-meter relay. By the time he came home, “Casas” was a household name in the Rio Grande Valley, and probably around the swimming world, as well.
“I guess people do really remember kids from their hometown,” the former McAllen High swimmer said. “I was more in the shadows and didn’t think too many people paid attention. I mean, I swim — I’m not a five-star football recruit. It was eye opening and a little crazy that so many people care. I think they are starting to appreciate the sport more.”
Casas began swimming when his mom thought it would be a good idea to put him in water safety classes. “She didn’t want me to be one of those kids who ended up drowning,” he said in a Texas A&M interview earlier this week. “They saw I was doing pretty well, so my instructors told my mom to put me in summer league. I did that for a couple of years, and then they put me in year-long swimming when I was about eight or nine.”
Casas’ father, Border Patrol agent James Epling, drowned in the Colorado River in California in 2003 after he and other Border Patrol agents had been “involved in a foot pursuit of a Mexican national and three Chinese nationals who were spotted on the California side of the river,” reads the Officer Down Memorial Page at odmp.org. “Agent Epling had jumped into the river and pulled the three Chinese nationals out of the water, saving one of them who was drowning. He was running downstream, attempting to arrest the Mexican national, when he went under the water.”
During his high school career it became evident that Casas was coming into his own and that he had rising potential. During the summer before his senior season, he left the Valley to join a highly competitive swim team in Austin. He had outgrown the facilities in the Rio Grande Valley and needed something more.
“I’m not saying it can be competitive here but it’s just not the same,” he said. “One of the biggest reasons I left for the summer was so I could maximize my performance going into my senior year and right before college — I just had to give it my all. I still had a lot of goals, so I had to really focus.
“Now, at A&M we have such great facilities, everything is give to us. It really helps me focus on what I had and not take for granted what I have now. I’m just humbled by it all.”
Humble most aptly describes the 19-year-old phenom. During an interview at his house, his mother, Monica Epling, asked him if he would like to show some photographers his room, filled with medals and trophies from his accomplishments — “He calls it the museum,” Epling said.
“You can show them,” he said, distancing himself from showing off the accolades. If he had his way, the walls would more than likely be bare.
As she walked away with the photographers in tow, Casas said he appreciated all the things he has accomplished, but he doesn’t get awestruck by what he’s done — or by what he’s trying to accomplish, which is improve and win. “I’m pretty much a minimalist,” he said. “I like to be in control of the things I can and keeping things simple makes it easier.”
Casas, an avid video gamer, said he even mailed back his Microsoft Xbox console to his house so he could have more time to focus on swimming.
“Now I only have my computer, but I’m going to cut back on the games there, too,” he said.
Casas described his summer as “not really too exciting — just swimming, class, study hall and sleeping,” but then added that the end of the summer it “really picked up, traveling to an international meet in France and Spain.”
Casas produced the second-fastest swim of his career at the time to snag silver in 1 minute, 59.50 seconds in the 200 backstroke in the third and final stop of the Mare Nostrum swim series in Barcelona, Spain. Casas finished second for Team USA two days earlier in the 100 backstroke in Canet-en-Roussillon, France, which was the second stop on the three-meet series that travels around the Mediterranean Sea.
“We faced some really adverse conditions that we don’t normally face,” Casas said. “In Monaco, it was 50 degrees — and raining, not the best, but really good practice. After that I was ready for anything; California (the nationals) was a piece of cake for me after that.”
Casas is preparing for his sophomore season at Texas A&M and is expecting a better year than his first.
“I want to be the guy at NCAAs winning or just medaling,” he said. “I felt this year was not the greatest for me. People were still impressed and I was grateful for how I did, but I just want to do better and show people I can be competitive.
“I need to learn how to race a little better, to learn how to win no matter what.”
He became the third Texas A&M freshman swimmer to score individual points at the NCAA Championships and the first to do it in two events (200 IM and 200 fly). He was also named to the All-SEC Second Team in the 800 free relay and 400 medley relay plus the SEC All-Freshman team in the 200 backstroke. He was also an honorable mention All-American in the 200 IM.
In the 2018-19 season, the Aggies broke 11 school records, with Casas breaking two individual records — the 200 back (1 minutes, 39.84 seconds), the 200 IM (1:42.29) and four relays (200 free relay, 800 free relay, 200 medley relay, and 400 medley relay).
Casas is on a meteoric rise. He credits consistency and hard work — and some luck, with how things have panned out, especially recently. Four years ago, he was just starting to realize that he could swim at the college level. He was a sophomore in high school at the time.
“Realistically, I didn’t think I could do this for a career until my sophomore year in high school. I got third in the state that year. That’s when it really hit that I could go swim in college,” he said. “I had plenty of scholarship offers from all around the country. I knew from the get-go where I was going to go. My mother said I had to listen to all of the offers, but I committed to A&M as soon as I could.”
The swim season never seems to end. His few days at home will be his biggest break and only chance to “reset” until Christmas. Until then, his time will be occupied training for the season, the NCAAs and then the Olympics.
“In a few weeks, we’ll start up nice and slow. It’s a long process, but once it starts it will be crazy few months — the season never really ends. I’m even swimming now on my break. Not because I have to or I need to, but because I love to. I’m always trying to get better.”
“Before I can be an Olympian, there’s always more work I can put in,” he said in an interview published on Texas A&M’s website. “I want to do much better during my college season at SEC and NCAA competitions. I didn’t race very well. That’s something I’ll attribute to just being a freshman. We’re obviously going to compete hard in the SEC competitions, but we’re going to be thinking about Olympic trials. Going to the Olympics would mean the world to me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. It would be a dream come true.”