Upon leaving her grandmother’s house on Jan. 31, Cheshire High School sophomore Vanessa Squillante had no idea what was waiting for her back at home. In recognition of her 16th birthday 11 days earlier, friends, family, and neighbors had gotten together in cars to drive by her house and send well-wishes.
“I was surprised and excited,” stated Squillante, a member of the CHS girls’ swim and dive team and the Cheshire Y/Sea Dog Swim Club. “There were so many people from my family and teams there. It was great to see everyone.”
On her actual birthday, Squillante had a virtual party with family on Zoom, but her family felt she deserved something extra special. Her mother Laura was diagnosed with colon cancer in April of last year, and since then Squillante has had to take on more household responsibilities with her dad at work.
“It was definitely difficult keeping up with swimming, school, and taking care of the household,” reflected Squillante. “It has gotten easier, but was stressful in the beginning.”
After teammates had a virtual party for Squillante, sophomore Somya Gulati suggested that the squad have a car parade. Laura Squillante love the idea and decided to set up an outside tent with a table, flowers, and chairs under it.
“The captains did their own blast to get the word out about the party,” said Laura Squillante. “I’m glad that we got it in before we had a snow storm.”
Laura Squillante estimated that 30 cars drove by the house. For their participation, each guest received a goodie bag.
“Some people got out of their cars and said ‘hello’ while wearing masks and having social distancing,” added Laura Squillante.
Vanessa took photos with guests before they left for the day.
“It is great to be part of a loving community,” said Squillante. “Cheshire is a second family to me.”
In reflection, Laura Squillante is humbled by the support she has received during her battle with cancer. At the time of her diagnosis last spring, she was told that 90 percent of her colon was blocked and thus, it wasn’t functioning correctly.
“I was in excruciating pain,” recalled Laura Squillante. “The doctor gave me a CAT scan and then said that I needed to see an oncologist right away. It (the cancer) had metastasized into my liver and bloodstream.”
Last October, she started having complications after surgery and needed to spend a month in the hospital. With her family needing help around the house, Vanessa stepped up to handle chores such as cooking meals, cleaning, doing laundry, and taking care of the dog.
“She has been a rock for me,” said Laura Squillante, who has undergone chemotherapy. “From the start, she said, ‘Mom, you are going to beat this (cancer).’”
Needing treatment specifically for her liver, Laura Squillante ended up going to New York to see doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She had her last treatment in January.
“They took all of the cancer out of my colon and liver,” stated Laura Squillante. “I feel so much better now. I’m going to pray that the doctors don’t see anything in my next CAT scan.”
In walking at home, she feels that her strength is returning every day.
“I was told that I can’t exercise the way that I used to,” explained Laura Squillante, who had a pump put into her chest. “I feel that being positive helps with your physical healing.”
Vanessa sees her mother as a role model in her life.
“I’m glad that she is doing better,” stated Squillante. “I look up to her every day.”
Due to her mother still being at high risk for COVID-19, Vanessa has had to learn remotely at home this year. While missing her classmates, she has risen to the challenge to earn a grade point average of over 4.0.
“I always stay on top of my work,” said Squillante. “Communicating with teachers has definitely helped me.”
Like in the classroom, Squillante takes pride in her swimming. In a shortened fall season due to the coronavirus pandemic, she contributed to the 2020 Rams going 8-0 to extend the program’s dual-meet win streak to 75.
CHS also won the Southern Connecticut Conference crown for the ninth straight season and 26th time in 27 years. In the finals, Squillante placed seventh in the 100-yard butterfly (1:01.86) and took 10th in the 50-yard freestyle (25.83).
Last year, Cheshire participated in eight virtual meets in which athletes compete against each other at their home pools and then the scores and times are put together to decide the winner.
“I wasn’t sure if we would get a fall season,” recalled Squillante. “I was very excited to hear that we would have an SCC meet.”
With her family working through adversity, Squillante enjoyed having teammates offer to drive her to practices and meets.
“The swim team is so loving and competitive,” said Squillante. “The girls help out everyone.”
Among others, her mother credited the Barto family, including swim sisters Mary and Julia, for spending a lot of time with Vanessa in and out of the pool.
“I love how Cheshire is such a supportive town,” stated Laura Squillante. “You don’t see that in a lot of places.”
Along with her work in the pool, Vanessa also took the initiative to keep the Rams healthy. Since the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference required that athletes and coaches wear face masks on the pool deck last fall, Squillante helped make 95 to 100 coverings.
Made of red fabric, the face masks read Cheshire Swimming & Diving and have a Ram logo on them.
“It was definitely a big deal to keep everyone safe,” said Squillante. “My mom came up with the idea of making the masks. I knew that she had sowing experience.”
After researching to make sure that the coverings met the approval of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, her mother set up a workshop in the house and invited the junior class to participate.
“There were people sowing, printing labels, cutting fabric, and coloring the masks,” explained Laura Squillante.
For her efforts, Vanessa was recognized as Cheshire’s recipient of the Spirit Award at the team banquet in January. Due to health concerns, athletes and coaches were only allowed to attend, but families could watch a livestream.
“I was very surprised when I heard my name called for an award,” reflected Squillante, who was also named to the All-SCC Academic Team. “I thought that I was being a good teammate like everyone else on the team.”
In announcing the Spirit Award, Modzelewski recognized Squillante for helping freshmen transition to a new team.
“The freshmen had a tough time last year because they didn’t get a normal season,” explained Squillante. “Some girls didn’t know where heats were or how the meets were run.”
The close-knit swim community was one of the reasons why the Squillante family moved from South Windsor to Cheshire in 2019.
“For her old swim team, we were driving an hour and 15 minutes every day to take Vanessa to practice in West Hartford, so it made sense to move to Cheshire,” explained Laura Squillante.
As a freshman swimmer at CHS, Vanessa was appreciative of how teammates made her feel welcome from the start.
“I was definitely nervous in the beginning, but felt more comfortable when I started practicing with my swim teams,” recalled Squillante. “Before I came to Cheshire, I already knew some people from Sea Dogs.”
In 2019, the CHS Rams posted an unbeaten regular season and then won the Class LL and State Open titles. By winning the State Open, the team ended a 15-year drought.
“It was a fun experience being a part of that team,” reflected Squillante.
Many of her high school teammates also swim for Sea Dogs. While the YMCA National meets have been canceled for the second straight year, club coaches hope to come up with a competitive activities for the athletes.
“In swimming, I want to try my best in everything,” stated Squillante. “I’m looking to support everyone on my team and do well in school.”
Next year, she hopes to celebrate her birthday in person with teammates and family members.
“The last couple of months have taught me a lot,” reflected Squillante. “I’ve learned to be myself and that tough experiences can also help you grow as a person.”