School-record performances, personal-best times, an undefeated regular season — indeed, the athletes on Seymour’s girls swimming team have produced similar results during a season that has been different in numerous ways.
The Wildcats, who haven’t lost a dual meet since the 2016 season, are 7-0 in their NVL South region, thanks to being sparked by a familiar foursome.
Sisters Sophia and Olivia Velleco and their teammates Katrine O’Leary and McKenna Haynes have consistently registered fast finishes in their races during this atypical season, which has included virtual meets due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sophia Velleco, a sophomore, broke Seymour’s 500-yard freestyle record in the team’s virtual meet against NVL South foe Naugatuck last Friday, posting a time of 5:04.72. Velleco, who eclipsed a 1999 record in the 500 freestyle, promptly broke her own mark in the event, touching the wall in 5:04.18 against region rival Woodland on Tuesday.
“Setting the record in the 500 freestyle was exciting, I have been setting my mind to do that since I was in sixth grade,” said Velleco, who also competes for Woodbridge Aquatic Club. “I have been dropping a good amount of time so far this season and have been achieving the goals I’ve been setting up for myself.”
Velleco also has the school-record in the 200-yard freestyle, which she set against Naugatuck. During her freshman season in 2019, Velleco placed fifth in the 200 freestyle (1:54.39) to earn All-State honors and finished second in the Class S finals (1:54.64). She was also part of the Wildcats’ Class S champion 400 freestyle relay.
“It was very fun last year, I loved the energy the team had and it made me really motivated the whole season,” Velleco said. “Swimming at the State Open was very scary, but it made me very confident and it made me truly believe in myself.”
With Seymour’s schedule including a mix of virtual and traditional in-person meets, the season has offered a different feel.
“It’s very difficult with virtual meets, but our team cheers on the sides of the pool, which hypes us up.”
Nick Blade, who is in his first season as Seymour’s coach, sees the determination Velleco has each day at practice.
“She is so driven, when I get her splits at practice, if she doesn’t hit that split, she says she has to do better,” Blade said. “She’s one of the most driven athletes I’ve seen.”
Olivia Velleco, a senior, helps pace Seymour in the 100 breaststroke, 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley. Last season saw her finish fourth in the 200 IM (2:16.15) at the Class S Championships and anchor the team’s first-place 400 freestyle relay.
She began swimming as a 5-year-old at the Valley YMCA in Ansonia and has appreciated her time in the pool ever since.
“Right from the start, I loved swimming,” said Olivia Velleco, who too swims at Woodbridge Aquatic Club. “In high school, I love swimming with my friends, we motivate each other every day. That feeling when you get a best time — you just feel so good in the water.”
Having her younger sister on the squad is also an added bonus.
“I actually like swimming against her, I feel like it gives me a lot of motivation to swim and do my best against her,” Olivia Velleco said.
“My sister hypes me up each meet, I love the experience,” added Sophia Velleco.
O’Leary, a sophomore, recently broke a school record in the 50 freestyle with a time of 23.69 seconds. Sierra Cripps, a 2019 graduate, who is swimming at Seton Hall, had the previous 50 freestyle team mark (23.86).
“I really wanted to get that record, I was focused on it,” said O’Leary, who finished fifth in the 50 freestyle at the 2019 State Open (24.12) and had a fourth-place finish in the 100 freestyle (52.71). “It felt good to accomplish my goals and the season is going really well so far, even though we’ve had some virtual meets.”
Blade also coaches O’Leary at Woodbridge Aquatic Club.
“Katrine is very fast and is a very versatile swimmer,” Blade said. “She glides through the water.”
The virtual meets, in which teams swim at their own pool, then compare results, have presented a challenge for swimmers and divers to compete at their best without their foes present.
“For me personally, I do better when it’s not a virtual meet,” O’Leary said. “Virtual is more difficult, because you are going against yourself. But we have been doing our best to remain motivated.”
Said Haynes: “There is not as much motivation due to the virtual meets. But I just try to look toward the future. I would like to swim in college, so whatever I do now impacts what I do in the future. We’re also always giving pep talks and hyping each other up.”
O’Leary hopes to break another team record before the shortened season concludes.
“I want to go for the 2 IM record and I’m mostly looking to improve my 50 and 100 freestyle times,” she said.
Blade is Haynes half-brother.
“It’s fun, it’s not much different having him as a coach than someone that I’m not related to,” said Haynes, a junior. “It’s easy to talk to him and he’s there for me if I have a problem or anything.”
Haynes, who swims at Woodridge Aquatic Club, placed fifth in the 100 breaststroke at the 2019 Class S finals. She also swam on the squad’s 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays, which finished second and third, respectively at the meet.
Her freshman season on the team was an eye-opener.
“My most memorable moment my freshman year was when we won the NVL title,” said Haynes, who also swims at Woodbridge Aquatic Club. “I definitely remember that it was so exciting and so new. I didn’t realize how intense and competitive high school swimming was until I joined the team.”
Senior Kelti Johnson (100 backstroke, 100 freestyle), Kaitlyn McCluskey (200, 500 freestyle) and Grace Parkosewich are among the competitors that have also paced Seymour, which still has meets against Waterford (virtual, Friday) and Oxford (in-person, Nov. 6). Then the team will compete in the NVL Championships, which will most likely be a virtual meet divided by regions.
“I hope that we all put up best times in the next few meets,” Olivia Velleco said. “I hope we all reach our season best times and become division champions. Every meet we always say we have to make it our best, even if there isn’t going to be a state championship.”