RCW: Pino's project
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how does one describe what Cassaundra Pino did for her teammates?
Kansas swimmer Cassaundra “Cassie” Pino was a little flustered. Who knew watching paint dry could be so exasperating? The then-freshman gazed around her room at the canvases she was concealing, and decided to take a breather. She wiped herself free of paint, slipped out of her room and was encountered by the inquisitive eye of her roommate, transfer Brie Balsbough.
“Is that paint on your neck?” Balsbough asked.
Oh no, Pino had missed a spot. Weeks of secrecy and hard work hung in the balance as the she tried to come up with a good response. The honors student, renowned for her intelligence and quick wit by her teammates, thought of one.
“I don’t know,” she sheepishly answered. “I’m trying some stuff out.”
Similar exchanges to this one would sporadically dot the first two months of 2016 as Balsbough would catch splotches of paint on Pino or see dishes in the sink covered in different hues. The roommate would be kept in the dark about Pino’s art project, just like their 26 other teammates.
“I knew she was artsy, but at one point she got really artsy and I thought she was painting a lot,” Balsbough recalled. “She didn’t tell me (what was going on) at all and kept her room closed a lot.”
Behind her bedroom door Pino continued her project, a tribute to a team that, over just a few months, she had grown to love as a family. Aside from getting caught, her only worry was finishing on time.
Pino’s path to the University of Kansas started in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was there that she had an early start to her swimming career.
“My two older siblings swam and my mom introduced me to it when I was four,” said Pino. “I had really great coaches that got me really into it.”
Through swimming, Pino developed a friendship with fellow Albuquerque native Nikola Fellows. The two had grown up together at swim meets, often competing against each other over the years.
“We didn’t go to the same high school, so we didn’t swim on the same high school team nor the same club team,” Fellows said. “We have competed against each other in a range of different events ever since we were little. We were on the zone team when we were 13. She’s been a friend of mine for a very long time.”
A year older, Fellows was already a Jayhawk by the time Pino was making her college decision. Fellows helped introduce Pino to the KU program and was able to give insight on why she loved it so much.
“When she was going through the college recruiting process, I was talking to her when I was home on break,” remembered Fellows. “She was talking to me about what college programs she was interested in and what she should look for, so I started talking about mine because I loved it so much. She ended taking a trip out here and the rest was history.”
Pino, like every Kansas swimmer, was thoroughly impressed by her official visit. Recruits get no better experience of the team-first culture of the program than interacting with their potential teammates. On her visit, Pino saw a group of hard-working student-athletes with great character and an undeniable sense of team. Though the swimmers and divers themselves were enough to sell her on the program, Pino found other selling points within the program and on the academic level.
“I’m a big academic person and the credentials KU and its Honors Program have ranked high among public colleges, which are really important to me,” Pino said. “From the swimming aspect, (Kansas head coach Clark Campbell) is a great coach and they have a great support system with (assistant coach Jen Betz) and the weight program. You hear about Kansas Athletics, and it lived up to its name.”
Pino discovered she knew more people on the team than she thought on her move-in day, opening the door to see San Diego State transfer Balsbough.
“She ended up taking a recruiting trip (to San Diego State) and my roommate was her host,” said Balsbough. “It was funny when I got (to KU), I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know this girl!'”
The reserved Pino quickly realized she had chosen a fantastic new home. She felt comfortable enough to let her true, ebullient personality out around her teammates. Her presence instantly became a fixture in the locker room and a favorite among teammates.
“Cassie definitely is shy at first,” Fellows explained. “It took her a little bit to break out of that shell. She really seemed to be a really good fit here, and she fit in even though she was shy because she let everyone else throw their kindness onto her before she shed it on everyone else.”
Despite the size of the 2015-16 swimming and diving team, 28 student-athletes in total, Pino came to know each and every one of her teammates on a deep and personal level. It was not until Christmas time that Pino had the epiphany that she wanted to express how much her teammates meant to her.
“I had never been a part of a huge team like this before. When I was in club I only had four or five friends I was really close with,” Pino explained. “I came to love (my Kansas teammates) so much, their support for every single person was something I had never seen before.”
So, perhaps intoxicated with the spirit of giving associated with the holiday season, Pino decided she would give her teammates gifts. A store-bought item was out of the question. Not only was there no room in Pino’s budget for 27 trinkets, but she wanted to give something that, like her relationships at KU, couldn’t be manufactured somewhere else.
It occurred to her to turn to art. As someone whose formal art training was limited to a single photography class, this would be Pino’s most ambitious art project. She had always wanted to take up drawing and painting as a hobby, now it was almost like a second job after being a student-athlete. Her gifts to her teammates would be paintings, each tailored to the 27 individuals she considered part of her family.
Over the next two months, Pino would become engulfed by her project. It was anyone’s guess if the studious Pino was furiously writing down biology notes in class or ideas for a painting. Spontaneous scribbling would interrupt conversations with teammates, who were not allowed to peek at her notebook that was guarded like a treasure. Holed up in her bedroom for hours at a time, no one suspected Pino was creating the greatest collection of artwork in Kansas swimming and diving history.
“Every time I would finish one, I’d put a Post-it Note on it and put it in my drawer,” Pino said. “There was a week that got chaotic and I was trying to dry them. Some were finished, some weren’t, and they were scattered all over my room. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to finish in time.’ I did finish and I’m glad I did it because it was worth it.”
After all was said and done, Pino’s bedroom contained 27 paintings, all as unique as each of her teammates. They ranged from simple yet beautiful depictions of single objects on a white background to a complex melding of seemingly unrelated topics, such as bears and keyboard playing (for Hannah Angell). As if her paintings were not enough, Pino added an inspirational quote to each piece, also unique to the individual. The artwork was ready to be handed out at the last practice before leaving for the Big 12 Championship.
“I just wanted to reiterate that their impact on each other and their cohesiveness means something to people and they shouldn’t forget that going into Big 12s, no matter what happens,” explained Pino. “I added a quote to each painting that would be motivational to them. I wanted them to know that no matter how they swim and how the season pans out, that people care about you who are with you through the horrendous practices to the really great ones.”
Pino was about to make the Sunday practice before traveling to the conference championship a great one. The practice was meant to be mild, so the swimmers were for the most part self-paced that day. Pino waited until everyone was in the pool to jump out and run to her locker to unload all of the paintings. The freshman jumped back in the pool, leaving Campbell to wonder what was up.
The interruption in her laps made Pino one of the last swimmers to finish. Senior Sammie Schurig was also one of the last swimmers to finish her laps and one of the last to discover her painting.
“I usually dilly-dally around, so I was usually one of the last ones out of the pool,” Schurig recalled. “I get out and looked around the pool deck and saw everyone just smiling, some people were on the verge of tears. I just went straight to my locker, and there is this beautiful watercolor painting of Eric Hosmer.”
Balsbough and Fellows received tributes to their home states. Oregon native Balsbough’s painting was an ode to Portland and its plethora of forestry and greenery that house a large deer population. Fellows’ was of a coyote roaming the deserts of New Mexico, its portrait highlighted by the same Zia Sun symbol that emblazons the New Mexico state flag.
Perhaps the most astonishing part of Pino’s project was her underestimation of the impact it would have on her team.
“I didn’t think they would all come out and be so happy about it, that it would have such a big impact on them,” Pino said. “Even (Clark Campbell) told me he couldn’t believe I did all of it. I didn’t think it was a huge deal.”
Though receiving a painting from a teammate might not replace months of training, everyone that witnessed Pino’s gesture believed it gave the morale boost the team needed to record its best finish in program history at the 2016 Big 12 Championship.
“It makes you feel really special,” explained Campbell. “Sometimes feeling special is the X factor that makes you do really well. It meant a lot to the team, everyone appreciated all the work Cassie did before we went to (the) conference (meet).”
“I think it just really kicked off the week really well,” Schurig added. “I think it really helped us bond over something that was so special for her to do.”
“I think one of the main things it did was calm down everyone’s nerves,” said Fellows. “The pictures made everyone focus on the team in general and focus on our culture and how we love each other as opposed to Big 12s just being about ourselves.”
“Teams are not always like this, there’s not always a big team mindset,” Balsbough commented. “It was good, especially before a team competition, to do something that brought everyone together.”
Though Pino’s project was one-of-a-kind, the closeness among the team that sparked Pino’s painting has been ingrained in the program’s culture for years. It’s largely what brought Pino and her teammates to Lawrence in the first place.
“We really value and work on our team culture,” stated Campbell. “The team is starting to attract people to it who value culture. It looks different for everybody, but the bottom line is we are creating an environment in which people feel safe, secure, strong, willing to express themselves and be high-level athletes.”
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Art connoisseurs may try to decipher the meaning behind a panda snout-deep in a jar of peanut butter or Darth Vader levitating a cup of coffee. A better idea would be to go to a swim meet at Robinson Natatorium and see that the biggest smiles and loudest cheers belong to those with Jayhawk caps on. Or they could simply ask the artist herself.
“A lot of times people don’t know that they’re appreciated and I think it’s important people know that because they make a big difference in others’ lives,”Pino concluded. “They made a huge difference in my life and I wanted to communicate that in a way that was significant enough to how I felt. “