Throwback Thursday: Cherry Hill native Sean Killion reflects back on Olympics, swimming career
A member of the Camden County Sports Hall of Fame and Cherry Hill East Athletic Hall of Fame, Killion swam for the United States in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
It has been nearly 25 years since Cherry Hill native Sean Killion swam in the 1992 Summer Olympics, yet he remembers it like it was yesterday.
Killion describes his participation in the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, Spain, as “surreal,” calling the Olympics a sporting event unlike any other.
“There was the whole experience,” Killion said. “It was people from all over the world, people from different cultures and countries.”
Killion’s trip to the Olympics was the highest point of a very distinguished career.
A 1986 graduate from Cherry Hill High School East, Killion set numerous records in both the Tri-County Swimming Pool Association and in high school. Considered one of the best swimmers to ever come out of South Jersey, Killion is a member of the Camden County Sports Hall of Fame and the Cherry Hill East Athletic Hall of Fame.
Killion’s roots in swimming were planted at Old Orchard Swim Club. Killion’s family moved to Old Orchard in 1967, the same year Sean was born, and became involved with the swim club right away.
“Cherry Hill was a great place to grow up,” Killion said.
Killion describes the environment at Old Orchard Swim Club as amazing. The swim club was a huge part of his family’s life, with summers spent attending social events, competing in swim meets and enjoying time with friends.
Killion remembers the moments he decided to swim competitively when he was younger. He decided to jump in the pool after watching his older siblings Kathleen and Michael swim for the Old Orchard Otters swim team.
“I kind of watched my older siblings do this,” Killion said. “I thought this was really cool. I want to be a part of this.”
Killion swam for both Old Orchard and Jersey Wahoos Swim Club in Mt. Laurel as a kid. While Killion was at Old Orchard, the Otters won 10 Cherry Bowl championships and Killion set multiple records at the team and Tri-County level.
At Cherry Hill East, Killion won multiple individual state championships, and his mark on high school swimming can still be found in the state record books. In his senior year, Killion set the meet record at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in the boys’ 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:24.04. Not only does the record still stand 30 years later, but at the 2016 NJSIAA Meet of Champions, no swimmer was able to come within eight seconds of the mark.
Killion became well known outside of South Jersey shortly after graduating high school while competing for the United States at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow, Soviet Union. Going against accomplished Soviet distance swimmer Vladimir Salnikov in the 400-meter freestyle, Killion pulled off a huge upset, winning the gold medal. Killion beat Salnikov by just less than a one-tenth of a second.
The accomplishment was even bigger of a deal considering earlier in the Goodwill Games, Killion and Salnikov both swam in the 800-meter freestyle and Salnikov won easily, shattering the world record in the process.
“To be able to, two or three nights later, beat him in his hometown, it would be like beating Usain Bolt in Jamaica,” Killion said of the race.
The Goodwill Games gold medal was one of the highs for Killion’s career, but there were lows as well. Killion remembers being disappointed after he failed to the make the U.S. Olympic team for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Killion continued to swim into the early 1990s, competing for both his college team at the University of California-Berkeley and internationally. He was a gold medalist in the 1991 Pan-American Games in the men’s 400-meter freestyle. In 1992, Killion’s Olympic dream finally came true as he made the 1992 U.S. Olympic team for both the 400-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle. He went on to finish 11th place in the 400 meters and 12th place in the 1,500 meters.
“I would read about the (international) meets and followed it and studied it,” Killion said of when he was a kid. “I hoped that I could maybe do that at some point. I never had this expectation that I would beat Salnikov or I would go to the Olympics.”
Throughout his career, Killion credits his family with being his biggest support. He believes he wouldn’t have been able to have the success in the pool without their help.
“My family was really my inspiration,” he said. “They kept me in check, made sure my ego didn’t get too big. I stayed humble.”
Killion also said he never forgets his roots in Cherry Hill. The support he received throughout his career from his hometown was incredible.
“There was a good core group of guys that I grew up with. Good D-1 athletes who created a good environment,” Killion said.
“The Old Orchard community, the St. Mary Parish community, the Cherry Hill East community, Christ the King (Killion’s elementary school), everyone was really cool and supportive,” he added.
It’s been awhile since Killion has lived in Cherry Hill. Since the late 1990s, he has lived in the San Francisco Bay area and is now married with two daughters. Killion enjoys spending time with the family, attending his daughter’s sporting events and surfing. When it comes to watching sports, Killion admits he hasn’t forgotten his roots.
“I still cheer for the Eagles and the Phillies, all of the Philadelphia teams,” he said.
Nothing could make Killion forget where he came from. He looks back on his swimming career with more pride each day, realizing the time he had in competitive swimming was truly special.