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Late Bloomer

Oilers' Casillan Quickly Rises to Top in Backstroke


HUNTINGTON BEACH — Meghan Casillan got a late start in competitive swimming, but she's making up for lost time.

Casillan, a senior at Huntington Beach High, has the county's fastest time (58.56 seconds) in the 100-yard backstroke this season.

Casillan didn't compete in the sport until she was 13, when most of her competition already had years of experience.

"Swimming was something I only did during the summer or when we went to the beach," said Casillan, who learned to swim in her backyard pool at age 5. "When I was growing up, I was playing volleyball or basketball."

But she wasn't enjoying herself.

"I can't stand crowds or team sports," she said. "People get too freaked out about winning and losing. I hate it when people have to depend on me, or I need to depend on them in order to win a game."

When she turned 13, a friend talked her into joining the Golden West Swim Club in Huntington Beach.

"It was pretty pathetic when I tried out for the team," Casillan said. "I had no idea how to swim the strokes. I didn't even know how to put on a [swim] cap and goggles."

Casillan said she had trouble in three of the four strokes, only backstroke came naturally. But she didn't find out how good she was until she swam in a minor club swim meet.

Casillan achieved a qualifying time, one of the highest time standards in age-group swimming, in the 100 backstroke. "My coach, who was really excited, ran over to my mom and told her," she said. "My mom didn't even know what a [qualifying] time was."

Casillan's mother, Jody, recalls the moment.

"We had just started with swimming, so we had no idea about all the different time standards. So when Meghan's coach told me her time, I smiled, and said, 'Is that good?' "

Bud McAllister, her club coach, said Casillan has a good feel for the water and is very good with her stroke under the water.

Said Meghan: "I guess I'm a natural backstroker. I'm not very good in the other three strokes, but my backstroke seems to come easy."

From there, Casillan became hooked on swimming.

"It's not that I'm antisocial or anything, but I've always been more of an individual than a team player," she said. "That's why swimming suited me so well. I'm the one responsible for my accomplishments; nobody else."

Casillan, who has been a three-time finalist in the 100 backstroke at the Southern Section Division I finals, had her best showing in 1996, when she finished third in 58.08, the best time by a county swimmer.

In the Southern Section finals last year, Casillan went faster in the event, finishing fourth in 57.95. Danielle DeAlva of Irvine, The Times swimmer of the year in 1997, won in 55.65.

Casillan said she had a disappointing Junior Nationals this month, but hopes to have a better showing at the Southern Section finals in May.

"I always seem to have good meets at Southern Section finals. I really get pumped up for that meet. But I'll have some tough competition, especially from Kyoko Yokouchi [Marina] and Nicole Beck of Buena," Casillan said. "I know I'll have to do my lifetime best. It will probably be a 56 that will win it."

Yokouchi, a sophomore, has the second best time in the county this season (59.96). Beck finished third in the 100 back (57.01) last year at section finals.

McAllister has helped some of the best swimmers in the world, including Janet Evans. He said Casillan's late start in swimming is not the norm, but, in some cases, it can be a blessing.

"There are some very good swimmers today who started swimming late," he said. "For these people, like Olympian [and gold medal winner] Jenny Thompson, they're having a lot of fun in the sport. Swimming is still new and exciting.

"For some of these kids that start at an early age, you start seeing burnout at 12 or 13. Things like winning medals or making good times aren't fun anymore, and they quit."

McAllister said he expects Casillan will start to shine in college. She recently signed to swim at San Diego State. Her personal best of 57.51 is just shy of a Senior National qualifying time.

"She's having a little difficulty making that next jump to Senior National times,' McAllister said, "but I think you'll see some good time improvement when she starts college."

He also believes Casillan will improve in her freestyle stroke.

"She just beat our Junior National swimmer in the 500 free during practice, so I wouldn't be surprised if she started to make some dramatic improvements in that stroke as well."

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