October 20, 2021

Bernhardts make their marks in the pool

Photos by Darl Zehr Photography.

Leah Bernhardt (left) and her brother Hunter both had outstanding seasons for the SUNY Cortland men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. The duo graduated from Groton Central School and honed their swimming skills in the Cortland YMCA Stingers program.

It was a great year for a brother-sister duo of Groton Central School graduates during the SUNY Cortland swimming and diving season.

Red Dragon sophomore Hunter Bernhardt (2018 Groton grad) and his freshman sister Leah (2019 Groton alum) were solid contributors while competing in SUNY Cortland’s Harriet Holsten Pool and other SUNYAC sites during the 2019-2020 season.

Leah Bernhardt was a co-recipient of the SUNY Cortland Female Rookie of the Year honor. She was also the SUNYAC Women’s Swimming and Diving Rookie of the Year. Bernhardt won the SUNYAC title in the 500-yard freestyle relay with a school-record time of 5:03.23 and was the league runner-up in the 200-yard freestyle in 1:54.14. She also registered a fourth-place finish in the 1,650-yard freestyle in 17:45.01. In addition, Bernhardt was part of Cortland’s league second-place finishes in the 800-yard freestyle relay and 400yard medley relay. The Red Dragons set a school record in the 800-yard freestyle relay with a time of 7:49.11, which featured her team-fastest 200-yard leg in 1:54.64. Bernhardt recorded a 50-yard freestyle leg of 52.36 seconds to close out the 400-yard medley relay.

“As a freshman, Leah’s drive and effort were outstanding,” said Cortland swimming and diving head coach Brian Tobin. “She gave 100 percent every day and always had a positive, can-do attitude. At the SUNYAC Championships her focus helped her perform under pressure and she not only won the 500 freestyle but also set a school record. Leah’s brother is Hunter, and she is “killer” in the pool.”

Hunter Bernhardt was a Red Letter award winner. The Red Letter may be given for outstanding athletic skills, team leadership, personal development as a player, or for any combination of reasons. He was chosen as the co-recipient of the 2020 State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Men’s Swimmer of the Year honor. The award recognizes performances through the entire season. Bernhardt shared the recognition with Geneseo’s Mitchell Phelps. Bernhardt was named the SUNYAC Championship Men’s Swimmer of the Meet in February after winning both the 500-yard freestyle (4:39.50) and the 1,650-yard freestyle (16:23.67). His 500 freestyle time was less than a second from breaking a school record, and his 1,650 freestyle time was more than a minute faster than his previous best from the 2019 conference championship meet. In addition, Bernhardt placed sixth in the 200-yard freestyle (1:45.09, 1:44.89 prelims) and was part of Cortland’s fourth-place 800-yard freestyle relay team.

“It meant that all of my hard work during the season paid off,” Hunter said of all the accolades. “I never excepted to received all the awards but it was a very exciting time.”

“Hunter deserved all the recognition he received,” Tobin said. “I realized I didn’t challenge him enough in his freshman season so I challenged him more in his sophomore season. Hunter has a great joy and passion and I truly believe he still has even more potential. There is still room to grow.”

For Leah Bernhardt, it was a slow start to her freshman season, but things turned out great in the end.

“When I first started off this year I was injured (chest muscles) and then I hurt my ankle a month later,” she said. “I started out in the slowest lane possible and kept moving over. I just kept getting better gradually during the season.”

While she did some sprint events, Leah seems to really be settling into the longer distance events.

“I did sprinting for a little while, but eventually did more distance events,” she said. “I was just better at them after going through a period of can I do this. It was just getting past the mental part. It was an adjustment but I got by it and wasn’t freaking out about the distance events.”

With three more seasons to go, Leah has some goals she would like to achieve before she is done.

“I’m about six seconds away from going to Nationals in the 500 free so that is one of my goals,” she said. “I’m two or three seconds away from the school record in the 1,000 and the 1,650.”

For Hunter Bernhardt, it was his second season with the SUNY Cortland swim team. What change did he see from freshman year to sophomore year?

“I improved my time by eight seconds in one year,” he said.

There were many awards Hunter compiled this season, but one was really special to him.

“When I received the SUNYAC Swimmer of the meet,” he said. “It was the first time I beat Geneseo swimmers in the 500 and 1,650.”

With the improvement Hunter made this season, it really has him looking forward to achieving even more over the next two seasons.

“I would like to break school records and hopefully qualify for Nationals,” he said.

It is a unique situation with the two siblings representing the Red Dragons. What does it feel like to them still swimming together.

“It seems normal,” they replied. “We have been swimming with each other since we were 7 and 9 years old.”

What makes all this success in the pool by Leah and Hunter Bernhardt is a tribute to the Cortland YMCA Stingers program since Groton does not have a pool in the high school or the district.

It was a story of survival when a 7-year old Leah first got in the pool at the Cortland YMCA, but it’s where she began to cultivate her swimming skills. It’s where she learned some valuable lessons.

“The Stingers taught me about how to be humble every time I raced,” she said. “Don’t get overly excited if I did well or don’t be over-dramatic if I didn’t do well. Just be a humble person. I learned to just give it my all in practice and want to do well in the meets. I learned how to be a hard worker, but don’t be too cocky.”

Hunter started with Stingers as a 9-year-old.

“It was good being in that program, he said. “The Stingers taught me how to work hard and I just kept doing the same thing at Cortland State.”

“The Stingers’ program gives the swimmers a good solid foundation in fundamentals,” Tobin said. “The swimmers are taught well and they are well prepared.”

The COVID-19 virus came just after Leah and Hunter completed the major part of their season. As of now, there isn’t a firm plan for the campus to be open in the fall yet.

“It is a concern, but what the coach told us was to just be prepared in case we do start practice in September. If we don’t start then, be ready for February if we have a season,” Leah said.

“Both Leah and Hunter are passionate about swimming,” Tobin said. “They are very committed to the sport. They have bought wetsuits and are actually swimming now in a nearby pond and in Skaneateles Lake. They are busy preparing for the season and I’m very excited about their futures.”

Leah and Hunter Bernhardt are just the next generation of athletes in the family.

Their father, Charles Bernhardt, is a 1988 graduate of Groton Central School where he was a three-sport athlete in cross country, track and wrestling. He wrestled two years at Tompkins Cortland Community College and was the team MVP both seasons (1989-90, 1990-91).

Their mother, Tammie (Miller) Bernhardt, graduated from Groton in 1989 where she played soccer, basketball and track. She also graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1994. Tammie was a 10time All-American (track and field/cross country) and three-time individual national champion (track and field) She won the 3,000-meter title at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships three times (1992, 1993, 1994). She was also part of Cortland’s NCAA Division III Cross Country championship teams in 1990, 1992 and 1993 and second-place team in 1991.