The Citizen sports department will select its 2017 girls swimmer of the year. Here is a look back at past recipients of the award.
Girls Swimming All-Stars: Southern Cayuga's Claire Rejman improves in second year at states
Claire Rejman couldn't help but crack a smile.
On the final laps of the 100 freestyle at the Section IV, Class C championships in Owego earlier this month, the Southern Cayuga junior surprised herself with a fast start and big lead. Her time of 53.69 — almost two full seconds ahead of second place — earned her a spot in the state meet.
Rejman, The Citizen's girls swimmer of the year, has continued to improve mentally and physically, as she qualified for states in three events this season.
"You really should not be smiling while you're swimming because usually that means you're not working hard enough, but I was in this race and I couldn't stop smiling," Rejman said with a laugh. "I was really excited before the race — I was so pumped up — and then once I started swimming it I surprised myself with how fast I was going."
Rejman finished 18th overall in the 100 freestyle (53.52) and and 49th in the 200 individual medley (2:14.43) at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association meet at Ithaca College earlier this month.
Last year at states, Rejman placed first in her three-swimmer heat and 37th overall with a time of 54.49 in the 100 freestyle.
"The first time going, you're nervous and you don't necessarily know what to expect even though you've been to a million swim meets before," Rejman said. "This one is a little bit different. You're representing a different team (Section IV) and there's more competition. ... The second time around I knew the drill and knew what was going to happen, so I could focus on my race."
Rejman believes a big part of her improvement comes from the offseason work she put in. After finishing her club season with the Auburn Stingrays, she stepped away from the pool and into the weight room.
"I worked out in the weight room and that made me so much stronger," Rejman said. "That made a big difference."
Rejman also took a break from swimming, which allowed her to reset and refocus before the varsity season.
"Swimming is different than other sports," Rejman said. "You can be physically strong for other things and be good at it. In swimming, you have to want it and be mentally strong. You almost have to be more mentally strong than physically strong."
Rejman led the Chiefs to a 7-3 league record this season. She holds nine school records, and bettered her marks in five of those this year.
Next year Rejman will continue to focus on the 100 freestyle, and will look to make states in multiple events. One possibility is the 50 freestyle.
"The 50 is a hard event though," Rejman said. "It's either a good or a bad swim."
For coach Caitlin Rejman, Claire's ability to set and achieve goals comes down to her mindset.
"I think mentally she's always in a good place and sets her goals high, and she pushes herself to achieve those goals," she said. "She keeps herself mentally fresh and avoids burning out."
Girls Swimming All-Stars: Rejman leading charge for revitalized Southern Cayuga program
Claire Rejman is leading the charge for the revitalized Southern Cayuga girls swimming team.
In the second year of the restarted program, the sophomore holds nine of the 11 team records and became the first member of the Chiefs to qualify for the New York Public High School Athletic Association meet. Rejman, The Citizen’s girls swimmer of the year, looks to build off the experience at states as she continues to lead the Chiefs in the right direction.
“We haven’t had anyone at Southern Cayuga make it before, so it’s a big deal for the swim program,” Southern Cayuga coach Caitlin Rejman said at the state meet. “To have the whole team come out and support her today, and see what other girls are doing and show what they can work toward in the future. It’s setting the stage for them, knowing they can do it to if they work hard, train hard and have those same goals.”
Claire Rejman finished first in her three-person heat and 37th overall -- 11 places ahead of where she was seeded -- in the 100 freestyle at the state meet with a time of 54.49.
Rejman's time was the second best she has recorded in the 100 free. She swam a 54.54 in the Section IV, Class C meet, but qualified for states by swimming a 54.34 in the first leg of the 400 freestyle relay.
“This year I think she did better place-wise than she was expecting,” Caitlin Rejman said. “Next year we’re going to try to get her into a consolation heat, and hopefully higher. We’ll see how the training goes.”
Southern Cayuga had a girls-only team until participation numbers decreased and the team went co-ed in 2011. The program returned in the fall of 2014 and showed steady improvement throughout the 2015 season.
“Right now, we have a good set of girls that are fast and can compete against other schools,” Caitlin Rejman said. “But the problem is when we compete against bigger schools that have 25 on a team and can fill more lanes, they score more points because of their depth. We definitely have the speed and we’re building on that.”
Claire Rejman attended St. Joseph School and swam with the Auburn varsity team as an eighth-grader. As she entered her freshman year, Southern Cayuga was restarting the girls swimming program.
“I started swimming competitively in third grade, but I had always taken swim lessons,” Claire Rejman said. “My mom and dad swam in high school and my mom swam in college, so it’s always been there. My whole family swam.”
Claire Rejman quickly made her mark on the program. She holds nine school records, including new marks this year in the 200 freestyle, 200 individual medley, 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle, and was a part of new fastest times in the 200 medley relay and 400 freestyle relay.
In her freshman season, Rejman broke records in the 100 breaststroke, 50 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley, as well as the 200 freestyle relay.
“This year they did a really good job of stepping up, saying ‘We want that record,’ and doing it,” Caitlin Rejman said. “This year definitely has encouraged them to push and set their goals higher than before.”
While taking control of the rest of the record book would be nice, Rejman is more focused on earning another spot at the state meet next year.
“I’d like to,” she said, “But it’s not what I’m shooting for.”
Girls Swimming All-Stars: Leah King leads Skaneateles to section title, places high at state qualifiers
SKANEATELES | Leah King picked up right where she left off last season.
The Skaneateles swimmer, who competes almost year-round with the Auburn Stingrays, used the offseason training to stay in peak shape heading into her sophomore varsity season, and springboarded into the Lakers record book multiple times on her way to the state qualifier meet earlier this month.
King, The Citizen’s girls swimmer of the year, has started to realize the potential her varsity coach and mother, Jill, has seen all along.
“Leah turned the corner this year,” Jill King said, giving credit to Stingrays coach Dan Walter. “She has started to realize that the hard work in practice is what pays off at the end of the season. She went from being the little freshman girl bopping around to realizing she has leadership potential.”
Leah King set the school record in the 100 butterfly this season, and teamed up with her sister Halle King, Haley Buchholz and Rachel Teixeira to set a new mark in both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.
Leah King was named the swimmer of the meet at the Section III, Class C meet for leading Skaneateles to its ninth section title in the last decade. She won the 100 butterfly and 50 freestyle and was a part of the winning freestyle relay teams.
For many of the Lakers, the friendly competition and senior leadership has helped develop the program into a Class C powerhouse.
“My three seniors have been swimming on the varsity team for six years, and I have to credit them with some of the success of these younger swimmers,” Jill King said. “They’ve been outstanding role models.”
Leah King said the friendly rivalry with Teixeira, her best friend, has driven both to be better.
“We’ve been swimming together for a while, and we push each other during practice,” Leah King said. “We’re like the same type of swimmer. Because we’re good friends, we like to beat each other in the pool.”
While Teixeira placed fifth in the 500 freestyle and eighth in the 200 freestyle, Leah King went on to place fifth in the 50 freestyle and sixth in the 100 fly at the state qualifier meet, narrowly missing a berth into the state championship meet. She is now looking to take that next step.
“The past three years, my times have been steadily improving,” Leah King said. “So hopefully that will continue and I’ll make it to states in the next couple years.”
With four years of experience on her varsity resume and year five approaching, Leah King is swimming better than many upperclassmen.
“Most people are only on a varsity team for four years,” Jill King said. “She has put in the four years of work and qualified each year to go to sectionals, and has been at the state qualifier meet the past two years in her individual event. So to me, her next logical step in the next two years is to go to states.”
Next year will be a role reversal for Leah King. Halle, her older sister, is graduating and heading to SUNY Cortland, while her younger sister, Grace, is joining the team as a seventh-grader. While Leah and Halle swam in different events, both Leah and Grace specialize in the butterfly stroke.
“She claims that she’s going to beat me,” Leah King said with a laugh. “If that’s what pushes her, then good for her.”
Expected to become a team leader in and out of the pool, Leah King is hoping to pass on to the younger swimmers what previous team leaders gave to her.
“My goal is to help the younger kids move up, because I had such great juniors and seniors when I was younger,” Leah King said. “Hopefully I’ll be that for the younger kids growing up.”
The Natural: Auburn's Cotter wins sectional title in the breaststroke
AUBURN | When Brigid Cotter looks back at herself as a seventh-grader, she cracks a smile.
After refusing to do a proper freestyle kicking motion during practice, the younger and shorter version of Auburn’s top swimmer did what came natural -- the breaststroke. Impressed, her coach at the time told her to stick with it.
Six years on the varsity team later, Cotter is seeing that decision and her hard work pay off. The Citizen’s girls swimmer of the year has made four trips to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association meet and broken three school records.
“If someone told me I was going to win sectionals or go to states for four years straight, I would have probably laughed and said that was never going to happen,” Cotter said.
Cotter bettered her own school record in the 100 breaststroke at the Section III championships (1:07.26), and was a member of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams that set new marks last season.
But the road to the Auburn varsity record book wasn’t easy. Cotter swims year-round with the Auburn Stingrays youth program, as well as the Maroons. There’s no offseason, and many days include double practices at morning and night.
“I didn’t expect to be working this hard,” Cotter said. “But as hard as I work, I love it. So that’s why I kept with it.”
“She has a lot of self-motivation,” said Maroons coach Becky Grant. “You can’t make them want it. You can tell them, you can work toward it and show them all the opportunities that can come their way, but you have to have a special intrinsic motivation, and she definitely has that.”
While Cotter has spent countless hours honing her technique, she lets instinct take over once the race begins.
“During practice I think a lot, but once I’m in the competition and swimming, I just basically tell myself to swim my heart out,” Cotter said. “I know that if I don’t swim my heart out, I’m not going to make it to the next round, and I’m not going to swim a personal best.”
For Cotter, it’s not all about what happens in the pool.
“Breaking records is definitely a good feeling, and making state cut times and sectional cut times,” Cotter said. “Being able to go to states is really great, but the bus rides to away meets is what I’m going to miss the most. All the girls on the team were absolutely incredible. We had an awesome season.”
Grant called Cotter an integral part to the team’s bonding, and a leader that helped bring together all the girls and mentor the younger Maroons.
“They want to ask her questions, like ‘What’s it like to be on the podium?’” Grant said. “They love it and she loves it. She’s very forthcoming with the girls, and loves to answer their questions.”
With her varsity swim career coming to an end, Cotter and Grant agreed that time seems to fly. This year's seventh-graders will be seniors before they know it.
“It’s sad, it’s really sad,” Cotter said. “I feel like I should still be a sophomore and I should still have a couple years to go.”
One last time: Leja breaks records, places in the top 10 at states in senior season
The event takes less than half of a minute, with hundredths of a second making all the difference.
However, it was years of preparation that led Auburn swimmer Mary Jane Leja to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association 50 freestyle finals in Ithaca last month.
Her first time qualifying for the championship heat, the senior was just happy to be in the ready room as she waited for the parade out to the starting blocks. When the time came, the swimmer tried to keep her mind clear in the water and tune out the crowd.
“It was so nerve-wracking,” Leja said. “States is the most competitive (meet) out of the whole varsity season, and I was just so nervous and excited hoping it was going to be a great meet.”
All of 24.49 seconds later, she was done with the final 50 freestyle of her varsity career.
“I just tried to make it my best since it was my senior year,” said Leja, who placed eighth in the state. “I was just trying to take every moment of it and make it the best.”
Leja, The Citizen's choice for girls swimmer of the year, knows plenty about being the best.
Already the school record holder in the 50 and 100 freestyle -- marks she either set or bettered at the state qualifier at Nottingham High School two weeks prior -- Leja made more Auburn history at the state meet.
Michaela Elliott, Brigid Cotter and Jenna Page teamed with Leja to break the school record in the 200 freestyle relay, the 1:39.84 was fourth-best in the state. The team that spent much of the season trying to break 1:40 did it -- with less than two-tenths of a second to spare.
“That was something we really wanted to do, we were just happy that we were in the final heat,” Leja said. “We didn’t care what place we were in, we just wanted to be on the podium.”
On her final day of varsity competition, Leja also raced in two consolation heats, placing fifth in the 100 freestyle and her team finishing fourth in the 400 freestyle relay.
“It’s really upsetting, because I have so many memories on that team,” Leja said. “I’ve grown really close to those girls and I might not see them for awhile.”
Although it was something she certainly hoped for, the success was nothing Leja foresaw when she began swimming at age nine, or even when she began swimming on the varsity team as a freshman.
“I never would have expected that,” Leja said. “I figured it would be a hobby and something to do. I never thought this would take over my life -- in a good way.”
It started with some raw talent, and was cultivated by countless hours in the pool for either the Maroons or the Auburn YMCA Stingrays.
“She was so fast right from the get-go,” Maroons coach Becky Grant said. “It’s been nice to see her grow as a swimmer...When she came in as a freshman she was fast, but over the years she’s gotten a drive to her. She knows who she’s swimming against and hates to lose.”
Leja rarely lost the 50 free all season, and looks to take that momentum into the Stingrays' season. She hopes to return to the national YMCA meet in a few months.
It’s just the latest of many goals set and achieved.
“They work all year and every girl on the team has a different goal, but everybody wants to drop time,” Grant said. “With it being so fast, not only is dropping time difficult, but winning any meet is difficult.”
Leja knows. The difference can be a few hundredths of a second.
Quiet success: Auburn's Leja named The Citizen's girls Swimmer of the Year
After competing in consolation heats at the state swim meet in November, Mary Jane Leja and the other three members of the Auburn 200 freestyle relay team realized that next year, that won’t be enough.
Inspired by the championship heats, Leja wants to aim even higher as she enters her senior year.
“It was really exciting watching those races,” she said. “It just makes me want to be there and be in that last heat. There was so much energy there.”
Leja already attained many of her goals this season. She qualified for states in three events, including the 50 and 100 freestyle, and bettered her own record in the 100 freestyle — earning her The Citizen’s girls Swimmer of the Year.
But 2012 will be a new year with loftier goals. With relay partners Brigid Cotter, Jenna Page and Michaela Elliott all returning and Leja’s constant improvement, it just makes sense.
Still, Leja’s constant development hasn’t come without some cultivation. Maroons coach Becky Grant has worked to refine her raw talent since she was a freshman.
“From then to now we really worked on some of her technique,” Grant said. “She had always been fast. Coming up into her junior year we tried to work on her technique like turns and starts. You’re always tweaking things to try to make her faster.”
Leja also receives some motivation from her teammates — her relay partners in particular.
“My times improved because I’ve been working hard, and on the team we all work hard and push each other to swim faster,” she said.
Next year, Leja has also set personal goals. She wants to continue to improve her 100 freestyle mark, and break the school’s 50 freestyle record.
But her labor of love startedabout seven years ago, when she was convinced to join in at an Auburn Stingrays practice.
“My friend got me into it,” she said. “She was doing it and was like ‘You should come to practice,’ and I decided to try it. And then I stuck with it.”
Although she was originally hesitant to try out for Auburn’s varsity team because of the amount of dedication required, Leja has developed into one of the team’s leaders, constantly giving her teammates moral support when competing are in the pool.
“When she first came on the team as a freshmen she was very quiet,” Grant said. “She has become very vocal — in a good way — and she’ll congratulate and cheer on her teammates.”
For Leja, it’s all about keeping the mood light in practice, as swimming is just as much a vessel to help her relax and take her mind off of other things as it is to be competitive.
“I like to keep everyone laughing at practice and keep everyone in a good mood,” she said.
It helps that Leja and her relay partners have turned into more than just teammates.
“The four of them get along and friends outside of school, so they had a really good time,” Grant said.
Even though she’s having fun, her demeanor in the pool remains restrained, making it hard to tell that she has turned into one of the best swimmers in Section III.
“She has a quiet nature,” Grant said. “You don’t expect her to necessarily get in and swim her pants off, because she’s not very loud about it and she doesn’t talk about it.”
Staff writer Jeremy Houghtaling can be reached at 282-2256 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at
the citizen all-stars: girls swimming
200 Medley Relay: Rachael DeWitt, Nikki Cole, Haley Buchholz, Emily Wirth, Skaneateles. The relay team combined for a time of 2:00.19 at the Section III, Class C championship.
200 Freestyle: Michaela Elliott, Auburn. Elliott swam a 1:57.38 at the state qualifying meet at Nottingham Nov. 5.
200 IM: Rachel Teixeira, Skaneateles. The seventh-grader cut her seeded time by nearly two seconds to 2:28.82 during the state qualifying meet at Nottingham Nov. 5.
50 Freestyle: Mary Jane Leja, Auburn. The junior swam a 24.65 to qualify for the state meet Nov. 5 at Nottingham.
100 Butterfly: Tiffani Chehovich, Auburn. At the state qualifying meet at Nottingham Nov. 5, Chehovich had a time of 1:06.38.
100 Freestyle: Mary Jane Leja, Auburn. Leja swam her best at 100 freestyle at Nottingham Nov. 5, scoring a time of 53.82 and qualifying for the state meet.
500 Freestyle: Michaela Elliott, Auburn. Elliott cut over a second off of her seeded time, finishing at 5:23.36 at the state qualifying meet at Nottingham Nov. 5.
200 Freestyle Relay: Brigid Cotter, Jenna Page, Michaela Elliott, Mary Jane Leja, Auburn. The relay team posted a 1:41.22 during the 2011 state championship preliminaries at Erie Community College Nov. 18.
100 Backstroke: Michaela Elliott, Auburn. Elliot posted a 1:02.58 at the state preliminaries at Erie Community College Nov. 18.
100 Breaststroke: Brigid Cotter, Auburn. Cotter set a new school record at the Section III, Class A sectionals Nov. 3, by swimming a 1:09.31.
400 Freestyle Relay: Michaela Elliott, Jenna Page, Brigid Cotter, Mary Jane Leja, Auburn. The relay team put in their best performance at the state qualifying meet at Nottingham Nov. 5, posting a time of 3:44.04.
Diving: Kaela Fiutak, Skaneateles. Fiutak placed first with a 409.2 at the state qualifiers at Nottingham Nov. 5 to become the first Skaneateles diver to make it to the state competition.
Auburn’s Leja making record time in pool
AUBURN — While some swimmers set targets for their personal bests in the pool, Auburn’s Mary Jane Leja aims at others’ personal best. When she gets into the water, she competes for not just personal bests but school records.
So far she has already rewritten two records — the 100 freestyle at Auburn High School and the 100 freestyle for the Auburn Stingrays. As only a sophomore, Leja, The Citizen’s girls swimmer of the year, eyes more records.
“I want to do better at states, maybe break a few more records,” Leja said.
Leja posted a 53.9 in the 100 on the Stingrays and a 54.2 with the Maroons. Even as they are both the high-water marks for each team, Leja wants to improve. By the end of her senior year, she said she wants to get her 100 time to 53.0.
As she inches closer to a a record in the 50 freestyle, she’s set a similar goal to be accomplished. By the end of her senior year she wants to swim the 50 in 23.0.
With a laundry list of accomplishments, there’s still a fire burning her to slice seconds off her time.
Why? Even she can’t explain it.
“I just try to make myself happy when I reach those goals,” Leja said. “I just keep going. I don’t know. I just can’t explain it. It makes me happy.”
Leja isn’t just concerned about her own accomplishments. She dominates in the pool and leads the Maroons as a sophomore. Whether it’s improvements that can be made in the pool or just cheering from the sideline, Leja takes her role as a leader seriously.
“I think how I can help other people,” Leja said. “I try to encourage people, just cheer them on at swim meets.”
As she matures as a leader, she also plans to mature as a swimmer. Leja wants to expand her repertoire and swim the 500 freestyle next year. Switching to longer distances should help her stamina in her best events, the 50 and 100.
“It’s very difficult, I’m so used to doing short races, doing the 500, it hurts,” Leja said. “But I want to do the 500 because it will help build up my endurance for the sprinting. It will just make me go faster.”
Maroons' quartet consistently dominates
The Auburn girls swim team 200 freestyle relay has accomplished a number of impressive feats this season. The winning quartet for 2009 was made up of two seniors, Mallorie Dygert and Ashley King, and two freshman, Makenzie Hauger and MaryJane Leja - who were the only local athletes to compete at the NYSPHSAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Webster this season, earning them The Citizen's Swimmers of the Year.
From coming in clutch late in regular season meets, to dominating the pool in sectionals, the Maroons' group has been solid all season - which says a lot for a team that has been riddled with illness this fall.
Auburn hadn't sent a 200 freestyle relay to the state meet in a few years, but the Maroons almost didn't send anyone, though head coach Tom Clary Jr. believed they could in his final season.
“The last six weeks before sectionals, I thought that if (the 200 freestyle relay team) could swim .10 of a second faster, they could make it,” he said before the state meet.
The 200 freestyle relay team swam its best time around 1:47 all year, but shaved the time down to 1:45 after the Section III preliminary round. Clary made some changes in the order - he initially had Leja in the first spot, followed by Hauger, Dygert and King. Before the Section III finals, Clary moved Hauger in the starting spot and following her with Dygert, King and concluding with the speediest swimmer gave the Maroons all the boost they needed, and a 1:42.88 time, a race in which all four swimmers came away with personal best times.
The Maroons didn't finish as well as they thought they could in states, leaving Webster with a 31st place on the first day (1:43.75).
“We missed (the finals) by one spot,” Clary said after the meet. “They were just a little slower than they swam in sectionals but this is a completely different atmosphere at states, so they did really well. For the two seniors it was an end of career reward and for the two freshman it was a great experience for them to come back with next year.”
Leja and Hauger will undoubtedly anchor another great array of athletes in the event next season, though it will be hard to forget this one.
During the season the Maroons exemplified the team's exceptional season. Against their biggest rival, Liverpool, Leja, Hauger, Dygert and King won their event in 1:47.43 to tie the score late in the meet, eventually putting Auburn ahead for good. Those are the kind of events that will have future 200 freestyle relay teams for Auburn measuring themselves against the one from 2009.
Roe set tone for Maroons
When Auburn swimmer Kelsey Roe starts narrowing down her college options soon, coaches will no doubt be happy to know that they'll be getting quite a well-rounded athlete.
Roe swam everything from the 100 freestyle to the 100 backstroke, individual events and relays for the Maroons. But her greatest triumph came in the 100 butterfly. She qualified for states in the event and finished 47th in the preliminaries. Roe finished fourth at the Section III, Class A Championships in 1:01.89, making her The Citizen's swimmer of the year.
“Everything she's gotten, she's worked for it,” said Auburn coach Tom Clary. “She's pretty much got the most out of her talent.”
Clary has had Roe, like most of his swimmers, under his tutelage for a number of years.
“As a first-year kid she was a talented swimmer coming up,” he said. “You'd hope that the mental side of it - the dedication - would equal the talent and it really did.”
Roe not only qualified for states in the butterfly, she holds the school record in the 100 backstroke - an event that she also finished fourth in at sectionals (1:03.56), barely missing out on the state-qualifying mark.
Clary could put her in almost every event and guarantee a positive result. Roe was one of five seniors (Molly Swartz, Tiffany Kline, Megan McNamara and Tracy Miller are the others) that guided a young team to a 7-3 record and to a fourth-place team finish at sectionals.
Clary will find plenty of things to miss about Roe's contributions when 2009 rolls around.
“We're going to miss her a lot,” he said. “She's going to be very hard for us to replace, not only because she swims anything I need her to swim but because she does it at such a high quality. She sets the tone for the other girls to follow.”