A year ago, Cassandra Neeley was just a teenager from Williamsville with a passion for synchronized swimming.
Now, she’s getting ready to compete on the world stage for Team USA.
“It’s been pretty crazy. I was just a normal high school student and now I’ve basically committed all my free time and my life to synchronized swimming,” Neeley said. “But I wouldn’t change it, I love it so much.”
Neeley, 18, qualified for the junior national team in December 2016 and moved to Walnut Creek, Calif., to train with the team about a year ago. She’s already competed in several international competitions and will represent the United States at the Junior World Championships that begin Wednesday in Budapest, Hungary.
She got into synchro later than most of her teammates and didn't try the sport until she was 11. Neeley grew up doing gymnastics and playing soccer and basketball before she tried a synchro camp at her local pool.
It sparked her love for the sport, a love that hasn’t wavered in the last seven years.
“I loved it immediately,” she said. “I always loved swimming. I would always go down to the pool with my dad in the summer. The instructor was a coach of one of the club teams that is in Buffalo and she asked me if I wanted to try out and I did and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
She began training with the Buffalo Swimkins 11-12 age group team, but it wasn’t long before her coaches realized her talent. In 2012, she finished 13th in the solo division at the age group championships. By 15, she was consistently winning her division.
At that point, Neeley got serious about trying out for the junior national team. She began putting in extra practices and workouts to get to the elite level, because she knew just training with her club wasn’t going to be enough.
The work paid off, and she made the team the next year.
“I was actually just in shock,” she said. “I didn’t know how the tryouts would go because there are a lot of really talented girls in the U.S. and in my age group. I was so happy, it was a really good feeling.”
While some of her teammates moved with their families to California, Neeley had to make the journey by herself. It was a difficult step for the teenager, who didn’t know what to expect moving 3,000 miles away from home.
“It was pretty hard and it still is,” she said. “I talk to my mom every single day and I FaceTime her, so it’s gotten a lot easier. I have my teammates with me so that helps a lot.”
Her training sessions typically last nine hours, beginning in the gym with strength training and cardio before moving to the pool.
The team was training for the worlds in Italy before heading to Hungary. The world championships run through Sunday.
There won’t be much time for rest once she returns, since the senior national trials are in August. That will determine who will be on the 2020 Olympic team, something Neeley has been training for since she fell in love with the sport.
The team is selected two years ahead of the Olympics so they have time to learn and perfect their routines.
Neeley has a backup plan in case things don’t work out, and has committed to swim for the Ohio State synchro team in the fall. The Buckeyes have won back-to-back national championships and are consistently one of the best programs in the country.
Neeley said no matter what happens at the trials, she just wants to continue to get better and see where life takes her with the sport.
“It definitely can get hard, but I really do love it,” she said. “I don’t really get sick of it.”