Old Lyme's Caleigh O'Neil follows the leader ... in this case sister Caitlin ... to success

Old Lyme — Her older sister Caitlin played soccer for a state championship team at Old Lyme High School.

So Caleigh O'Neil played soccer at Old Lyme.

Then, her sophomore year at the high school, Caitlin's friends talked her into rowing, a sport in which she started slowly — coach John Laundon would later joke with her that she was one of the worst rowers he's ever seen. Caitlin improved to the degree that she was offered a Division I scholarship to the University of Alabama.

So Caleigh O'Neil rows for Old Lyme.

“She's, like, my role model,” O'Neil, an Old Lyme senior, said this week of her sister, who is six years older. “I've done everything she's done. For rowing, I thought I should try it.”

Caleigh O'Neil was the Most Valuable Player of the 2016 Class S state championship soccer game, scoring the game's only goal in Old Lyme's 1-0 victory over rival Old Saybrook. A defender who had yet to score during the season, O'Neil took a powerful direct kick from 30 yards out and rattled it in off the right post.

That was Old Lyme's second straight Class S title, tying with Notre Dame of Fairfield for 2015 honors.

In rowing, meanwhile, O'Neil has one-upped even her soccer-playing self. She was a member of Old Lyme's girls' first four with coxswain which finished second at the 2016 National Schools Championship Regatta on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

That trip, O'Neil's second straight visit to the nationals, came after winning the Connecticut Public Schools Championship in the fours last May on Lake Waramaug in New Preston.

She has committed to be a Division I rower for the University of Massachusetts.

“(Caleigh) always does everything I do, but better,” Caitlin O'Neil said in a telephone interview from Boston last week. “She started rowing so much earlier than me. She has so much talent. The goal (that won the state championship game) speaks for itself. She's really decorated. I can't even begin to describe that.

“She's one of my best friends, too. She's six years younger, but I look up to her, as well.”

The family's bond is impenetrable: Caitlin, who turned 24 on Easter, the day Caleigh signed her National Letter of Intent to attend UMass; 21-year-old brother Kyle, a junior computer engineering major at UConn; and Caleigh, the youngest at 18, all look to each other and their father, Patrick, for guidance.

The children's mother, Denise O'Neil, died on Nov. 14, 2008, of what Caleigh said was explained to her as “complications from surgery.” Denise was 42 years old. Caleigh was just 9.

“She was amazing,” Caleigh O'Neil said of her mom. “She was a nurse. She was my everything. She got me into Girl Scouts. I believe in everything she taught me. When the ball went in the goal (in the state soccer final), we all said she was looking over us.”

Patrick O'Neil's daughters report that he makes a mean steak and that he's an accomplished listener.

“I tell my dad everything like he's my mom,” Caleigh said, breaking into a smile. “It was definitely challenging (for him), but he's done so much for us. He always pushed me to do my greatest.”

“To all of us, he's a best friend,” Caitlin O'Neil said. “I'll talk to him now from my standpoint and say, 'How did you do it?' He kept it all together. I call him every day. I talk to him sometimes more than once a day. We also got a lot from my mom. She was a social butterfly. My mom was very organized, very poised. I was lucky to have my mom for 15 years. One of the ways I like to be … I live with her light.”

If Denise O'Neil was poised, it could certainly be said that her children very much echo her grace.

Caitlin is an accountant at Ernst & Young in Boston and lives in Brookline, Mass. Kyle is getting set to forge a spot in the same field as Patrick, an engineering manager at Electric Boat.

And this kid?

Caleigh, who has a 95.5 grade point average, was named a CIAC Scholar-Athlete from Old Lyme and also received the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents' student recognition award. She has earned the Girl Scout Silver Award and is working toward the Gold Award, the highest designation for a Girl Scout.

On Friday, for her senior project, she completed an eight-hour training course called the Aviation Survival & Egress Training Program, designed to provide air crew and passengers knowledge and skills necessary to successfully perform an underwater escape from an aircraft. Using a simulator, Caleigh learned to escape from a section of the plane which had flipped over, with the lights out and artificial wind and rain.

Caleigh is the one, Caitlin predicts, that will have the strength and determination to follow her mother's path into the medical field.

“She's going to be so successful,” Caitlin said. “She's going to do so well.”

Saturday marked Old Lyme's first crew regatta of the season after a slow start due to the weather. The Wildcats, coached by Paul Fuchs, traveled to Pomfret to compete against Pomfret, Noble & Greenough and Hopkins.

Caleigh remembers her first rowing experience, with the Old Lyme Rowing Association's Learn-to-Row program. She pulled the oar up to her neck, not exactly good form.

Still only 5-foot-8, O'Neil has to focus on power and technique. She said her 2K ergometer time of 7 minutes, 45 seconds, one that she's constantly refining, was one of the things considered by colleges in her recruitment.

She calls rowing “a mental game,” in addition to the blisters she has on both palms as result of the physical nature of the sport.

“When you get to the start, everyone's silent,” O'Neil said. “Once you start, it's all you, you and the other girls. At practice, my coach will say the lineups and the workout. We could do sprint pieces to get strong for the race on Saturday. When they're long pieces, you think so much; you think you're hungry.

“The people, the atmosphere, being in the boat. Once you're on the water it's peaceful. When you start going, you know to focus. A lot of thinking goes on, thinking about everything.

“… It's such a cool sport. It's so different than anything I've ever done.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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