HARTFORD, Conn. — Katelyn Mann and Bryana Cielo have been friends since they were 7, swimming together for the same club in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.
As college students in Connecticut, they supported each other as both worked to overcome major health issues.
This spring, both were named winners of the Hartford HealthCare Courage award, given each month during the academic year to one male and one female athlete in the state who have overcome personal adversity.
Mann swam for Central Connecticut and Cielo for Sacred Heart, both returning to the pool after being forced out of the water in 2017.
Mann was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Cielo began having grand mal seizures and discovered she had epilepsy. The possibility of seizing while in the pool made it impossible for her to swim.
“It was terrible, it was like back-to-back,” Mann said. “But I think it actually made us closer.”
Mann said she knew from the day she was diagnosed with cancer that she would fight her way back into competition for the Blue Devils. She was declared cancer-free in time for the 2018-19 season.
This year she finished seventh at the Northeast Conference championships in the 200-meter breaststroke, sixth in the 200 individual medley and seventh in the 100 butterfly.
“I watched her go through the fight of her life,” Cielo said. “She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. So when I got the email saying this (award) was happening for me as well, the first thing I thought of was her and how honored I am to be part of something that she also was part of.”
In January, after one year of being seizure-free, Cielo's doctors and coaches permitted her to swim one final race — the 50 freestyle at the NEC Championships. She swam a personal best and finished sixth in her heat.
She said it felt like she had just won the Olympics.
“I was actually right behind her block,” Mann said. “I had just finished my events, so I was officially a retired athlete. Then I got to watch her finish her last two laps. It was super cool.”
Other monthly winners during the awards' inaugural year include:
— Yale quarterback Kurt Rawlings, who overcame a serious leg injury and his mother's cancer diagnosis to lead the Bulldogs to the 2019 Ivy League title in football.
— Mitchell College lacrosse player Jacob Anderson, who suffered a stroke in October 2018, underwent emergency surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain, then returned to the team in time to play his freshman season. He also tore his two ligaments in his left knee during his sophomore season but plans to play again next year.
— Samara Johnson, a track and cross-country athlete from Eastern Connecticut State who overcame myriad physical issues to run in college, including a depth perception disorder that prevents her from driving, leg problems that required braces as a youngster, the digestive condition “leaky gut syndrome” and an adrenal gland disorder.
— Eli Thomas, a UConn football player who suffered a stroke before a weightlifting session in October 2018. He returned to the team after extensive rehabilitation and had to learn to speak again. He was not cleared to compete but was named a team captain and hopes to return to the field in the fall of 2020.
— Taylor Herd, a senior guard on the Quinnipiac women’s basketball team. She tore two ligaments in the same knee during high school. She came back to play after her father received an artificial heart in 2017.
— Chris Liggio, a senior running back for the University of New Haven football team, who lost his parents at age 15 to a murder-suicide. He was named a co-captain this past season and rushed for 415 yards and three touchdowns.
— Weyassa “Ace” McAlister, a senior distance runner for Trinity College. He was born in Ethiopia, spent time in an orphanage and for three years ran 6 miles each day to school.
— Sam Kramer, a senior point guard for the Fairfield women’s basketball team, whose father died in December 2018 from a rare immune disease that led to non-Hodgkin T-cell lymphoma. She played the rest of that season and was a captain for the Stags this past season.
The Courage award winners were chosen by a panel from the College Sports Information Directors of America, The Associated Press and College Hoops Illustrated. Hartford HealthCare will donate a total of $15,000 to the general scholarship funds of the honorees’ schools.
Plans to choose two athletes from the pool of monthly award winners for an annual prize were scrapped amid the COVID-19 pandemic as athletic programs shut down for the spring.