Neptunite head coach headed to the Air Force

If you’ve ever been to a swim meet or water polo game in Porterville, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ve seen Mikayla Balangue somewhere in the crowd. 

She’s hard to miss with vibrant red curls and an engaging smile. You see her everywhere, going from team to team, saying hi to coaches and players before a wave to the officials as well.

A part of the Porterville aquatics scene since she was four, Balangue helped lead the Porterville Neptunites to their first Central Valley Recreational Swim League Championship this summer. On Tuesday, she and the Neptunites were recognized by the Porterville City Council for their accomplishments. 

It was a perfect sendoff for Balangue who is set to join the U.S. Air Force in late November. 

“It was great because we’ve been around for about 50 years and to finally be able to beat the bigger teams like in Kingsburg, it was nice,” Balangue said winning Valley. “It was nice to be able to finally get the recognition and finally, finally win.”

The Valley Championships were on July 20 in Tollhouse, Calif. and the Neptunites won as an overall team with 1,415.33 points. Taking second and third, respectively, were the Kingsburg Seawolves (1,253) and the Porterville Hurricanes (1,243.5).

Balangue, the Neptunites’ co-head coach for the last two years, said the swimmers came into the championship meet excited and prepared with everyone motivated to do their part to help win.

“It’s hard for kids at a young age to know that they’re fast and know that like, ‘Oh I’m first,’” Balangue said. “They don’t get that first in Valley with 24 teams is a big deal. And then they win and they’re like, ‘Oh!’ And then they get their medals and they’re super excited. So they were very excited to get those medals. And once they understood the position they were in, they really wanted to try and do good for our team.”

Balangue was once one of those young swimmers unaware of just how good she was. When she was four, she and her brother missed signups to join the Neptunites but her mother told them to just get in line with the other swimmers and swim.

“My mom really wanted us to swim,” Balangue said. “She took us to a practice, and we went in our swimsuits, and she was like, ‘Go get in line.’ And so we went and got in line and we swam across the pool.”

Being so young and making it all the way across the pool caught the attention of Neptunite president Rick Conway, who said, “Sign them up, they’re good! They made it all the way across.”

In a way to avoid the hot summers, the pool became a safe haven for Balangue. It was a place where she could cool down and teach others to swim. 

A top swimmer for Porterville High School, Balangue’s name remains in the PHS record book for helping set the school record for girls in the 200-yard freestyle relay (1 minute, 41.21 seconds), 400 free relay (3:48.50), and the 200 medley relay (1:52.32) in 2013.

Over the past few years Balangue continued to make an impact on Porterville swimmers as a coach for the Neptunites and the Monache High School varsity swim team. She also officiated water polo games and is now the junior varsity water polo coach for the Marauders.

“Mikayla has been with Neptunites almost 20 years, starting as a young swimmer and every year evolving into the coach she is today,” Neptunites co-head coach, Evan Thomas, said. “She sees Neptunites the way it is meant to be viewed, first as a family and a community with every motivation put forth for the enjoyment and success of the kids.”

The family sentiment is something Balangue’s mother, Kelle Lowe, has also seen in Balangue as a coach. 

“She loves her kids,” Lowe said. “Something you will see at every swim meet for the past nine years is Mikayla carrying around the kids, most of the time with one on each hip and several following behind. 

“She also swims at most of the meets,” Lowe continued. “You'll always know when she's swimming because all the younger kids are at the end of her lane cheering for her. And they are so loud yelling and screaming when she wins. I asked why she swims and she says because the kids love it and (wants) them to always remember the fun times we have. It's not just about competition, it’s building lifelong friendships and having fun.”

At the team’s last practice, Balangue said she was thinking about how it was her last practice when her cousin’s kids ran up and hugged her. It was a gesture that brought her to tears.

“I’m very sad,” Balangue said. “I cried at the last practice. This has been my summer since I can remember. Seventeen years I’ve been on the team. I’m really, really sad. It’s going to be hard when it’s summer next year and I’m all the way across the country and not in the pool with all these kids.”

Balangue leaves for Texas in November to begin basic training for the Air Force. She hopes to work with the security force and work her way up to working with the military dogs. 

“If I don’t get to do that I’ll enjoy anything I do, long as I’m there and able to serve,” Balangue added.

She also plans to eventually get a leave in the summer so she can come back to her Neptunites — an idea that is welcomed by co-head coach Thomas.

“Mikayla, on behalf of Neptunites we love you and hope you come back to us soon,” Thomas said. “Good luck in all of your next endeavors.”

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