Since third grade, Cheshire High School senior swimmers Mary Barto and Bella Tejeda have been inseparable. From sharing in the same swim events and with groups in the pool, to classes in school, they have formed a bond that they feel will extend far into the future.
“She (Barto) is awesome and super-positive,” said Tejeda. “Mary never fails to make me smile. She is the kind of teammate that you don’t come across often.”
“She has made me a better person and swimmer,” said Barto, of Tejeda. “I’m so lucky to have known her.”
While going their separate ways after graduation, the friends are excited to see each other compete on the next level. For Division I swimming, Tejeda has signed with Fairfield University and Barto has chosen to extend her career at American University in Washington, D.C.
Barto looked at New York University, Fordham University (New York), and Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), but picked American for its academics, swimming, and social activities.
“I’m so excited about it,” stated Barto. “It seems like the perfect fit for me.”
Barto visited American back in July, but due to coronavirus restrictions, her family could only drive through the campus.
“It was very different because I didn’t get to meet people in person,” stated Barto.
She has since met American Head Coach Mark Davin and swimmers over Zoom. The team competes in the Patriot League.
“I definitely want to get faster in college,” said Barto. “With training, I want to do more IM (individual medley) races. I tend to focus on breaststroke and butterfly in my championship events.”
She feels that her younger sister Julia has pushed her to reach the college level. Julia had a stellar freshman season this year at CHS and also competes for the Cheshire Y/Sea Dog Swim Club.
“Growing up, my sister was trying to find the sport that fits her best,” recalled Barto. “When she started swimming, she loved it and we bonded over that.”
While excited to swim at American, Barto will put an emphasis on academics.
“I love learning and that helps me do well in the pool,” explained Barto. “American has a lot of different clubs, too. I think that I’ll be busy and I like it that way.”
“Mary is one of the nicest people I’ve met,” said Dave Modzelewski, who has coached CHS girls’ swim and dive for the last three years. “She can fit in with anyone.”
Though she won’t move into the Fairfield dorms until next year, Tejeda already feels comfortable with the Stags program. Head Coach Anthony Bruno previously coached in the Sea Dog club.
“I’m excited to have that connection with him,” Tejeda said.
She has also spoken with 2019 CHS graduate Joe Cannata, who swims for Fairfield and Sea Dogs.
“Joe is my neighbor, too. We’ve been friends for a long time,” stated Tejeda. “I’m really glad that I get to swim with him because he is a good teammate.”
Fairfield’s local ties were key to Tejeda picking the school over Fordham, Wheaton College (Massachusetts), College of the Holy Cross (Massachusetts), and Franklin & Marshall College (Pennsylvania).
“The hardest part was not being able to go on recruiting trips in the fall,” reflected Tejeda. “Luckily, a lot of the process was through phone calls and Zoom.”
With the Stags, Tejeda wants to challenge herself competing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
“I hope to make my mark on the team and motivate everyone,” said Tejeda.
In becoming a college swimmer, Tejeda is excited to extend a family tradition. Her parents Luisin and Rosanne both swam at Rider University, while her older sister competes at Merrimack College (Massachusetts). Tejeda’s younger sister Julia swims for the Sea Dogs and will join the CHS girls’ team in 2021.
“My dad grew up in the Dominican Republic and swimming is big there. My mom lived in Hamden and was captain of the team with (CHS Diving Coach) Patty Conte,” said Tejeda. “Swimming is a sport that reinforces lessons. We are very good in the classroom and know how to manage our time.”
Since her older sister swims in college, Tejeda went to her for advice in the recruiting process.
“When I went to her college signing as a freshman, I couldn’t image myself having that experience three years later,” Tejeda reflected.
Tejeda started swimming with the Hamden/North Haven program at age 6.
“It is funny, because I didn’t used to want to put my head in the water,” recalled Tejeda.
At age 11, she switched clubs to Sea Dogs and fit in quickly.
“The team is very close and well known around the country,” said Tejeda. “I like how family-oriented it is.”
After beginning her swim career with Meriden Silver Fins, Barto came to the Sea Dogs. Due to an eye problem, she didn’t try contact sports.
“When I was 9 years old, I wanted to do more with swimming,” explained Barto. “The Sea Dogs have done so much for me, in and out of the pool.”
Barto and Tejeda have contributed to a record-setting run for the club. In 2017-18, the Sea Dog women’s team won the program’s first three YMCA national titles.
“On my first trip going into freshman year, it was so great,” recalled Tejeda. “I looked up to all of the seniors and I hoped that the younger kids could get that same experience this year.”
Tejeda admires the coaching personality of Cheshire’s Sean Farrell.
“He gives you tough love when you need it,” explained Tejeda. “He has an individual path for everyone to do the best they can.”
“She is one of my all-time favorite personalities,” stated Farrell. “Bella fights every meet. She knows that she may not be the leader at the 100 mark (of an event), but she will keep on grinding to the end.”
As Farrell’s neighbor, Barto was excited to move into his swim group.
“I’m grateful for all that he has done for me,” stated Barto.
Barto and Tejeda have also shined at CHS. As part of a 13-member senior class, the girls helped the Rams go 42-0 in dual meets, along with claiming four Southern Connecticut Conference titles, three class crowns, and the 2019 State Open championship.
Prior to the senior class arriving at CHS, the Rams hadn’t won a state title in eight years.
“It has been really exciting,” reflected Tejeda. “In my freshman year, I didn’t realize the legacy of Cheshire swimming. We can look back in 10 years and say that we shared this experience together.”
Tejeda and Barto both qualified for state finals in each their first three years. Barto made the ‘A’ heat in the 2018 Class L 100-yard butterfly and nabbed eighth place (1:00.31) overall.
In her top finish at states, Tejeda took sixth in the 200-yard IM (2:11.55) in the 2019 Class LL meet. The year before, she earned a bronze medal in the SCC 100-yard breaststroke (1:08.81).
“I love swimming different strokes and helping my team however I can,” explained Tejeda.
Last year, the Rams were moved up from Class L to LL, but rose to the challenge to beat Greenwich for the first time in a decade. CHS also won the State Open, ending a 15-year drought without that title.
“From the first practice last year, we all had one goal,” reflected Barto. “I think that trials was more important than states because we had to put our best foot forward there. After that, everything fell into place for finals and the State Open.”
As seniors this fall, Barto and Tejeda hoped to win a fourth state crown, but due to the pandemic, the class meets and State Open were canceled.
Cheshire still shined in a different way, winning seven of their eight dual meets virtually. For virtual action, squads face off against each other at their pools and then the times and scores are compiled afterwards.
“It was hard to get used to the meets. We were lucky that our team has so much depth and strong swimmers to work off of,” explained Tejeda. “You don’t always want to beat your friends, but we adapted to it.”
To end their careers, Barto and Tejeda factored into the Rams capturing their ninth straight SCC crown. To open Cheshire’s virtual meet on Nov. 7, Barto earned her first title, teaming with her sister Julia and seniors Nora Bergstrom and Emma Glover to win the 200-yard medley relay (1:50.00).
“I hadn’t been on a championship relay before,” stated Barto. “On relays, you are swimming for your team instead of yourself. You don’t want to let anyone down.”
In the 100-yard butterfly, Barto placed runner-up (58.69) to sophomore Julianna Tyler (58.34). Their times rank ninth and 10th in Cheshire history.
“I love Julianna,” stated Barto. “Ever since I met her, she has been a hard worker.”
Barto also secured fourth place in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:08.19).
In her final meet, Tejeda (2:11.18) teamed with Glover (2:10.69), Tyler (2:10.64), and Julia Barto (2:08.09) to sweep the top-four spots in the 200-yard IM.
“I didn’t expect to be so close to my best time since we only had an hour to practice at the start of the season,” explained Tejeda, who added sixth place in butterfly (59.82). “I had amazing teammates who pushed me.”
Along with securing All-SCC and All-Division I honors, respectively, Barto and Tejeda also received All-State for the first time. CHS had nine honorees total.
“It was really exciting and nice to be in that group,” stated Tejeda.
Barto enjoyed sharing accolades with her sister Julia, who won three events in her SCC debut.
“I knew that she would be on the team with me when I was a senior,” said Barto. “I was so happy that she won the 200 IM. She is hard working and competitive in a good way.”
As a tri-captain with Sophie Murphy and Natalie DeMatteo, Barto liked helping underclassmen like her sister grow on the team.
“It was really special,” said Barto. “All of those (senior) girls could have been a captain and led the team even without the title. Sophie, Natalie, and I tried to make it a memorable season.”
Before leaving Cheshire for college, Tejeda and Barto wants to enjoy their experience with Sea Dogs. Since Connecticut has put a pause on team sports through Jan. 19 of next year, swimmers are training on their own or in groups of four until they can all get back together.
“I’m hoping to get back to where we were at the end of the fall season,” said Tejeda. “The goal is to stay positive and be ready to go.”
For the second year in a row, YMCA Nationals have been canceled in 2021, but the Sea Dogs are working on alternatives.
“We are praying to get back as soon as possible and have something at the end of the season,” stated Barto.
Next year, Tejeda and Barto feel that saying goodbye to teammates will be hard. Murphy (Georgia Tech University), Bergstrom (Colgate University-New York), senior Ava Breton (University of Mount Union-Ohio), Glover (University of Maine), and senior Ali Tyler (George Mason University-Virginia) will also swim in college.
“It is going to be hard not seeing everyone, but I’m excited to see how we all do,” said Tejeda.