A Legacy Immortalized in Brass: Plaque Dedicated to Memory of Arielle Aney (‘20) Unveiled at Stuyvesant

On November 22, a memorial for Arielle Aney (‘20) was held at Stuyvesant, coinciding with the unveiling of a plaque in her honor.

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By Phoebe Buckwalter

Just weeks after the Stuyvesant girls’ swimming and diving team, the Penguins, were crowned 2023-2024 Girls Swimming Public School Athletic League (PSAL) Champions, loved ones of former Penguin Arielle Aney (‘20) gathered on the first floor of Stuyvesant to mourn the passing of the star swimmer, who lost her battle with colorectal cancer on March 23, 2023, at 21 years old. The November 22 memorial coincided with the unveiling of a plaque outside the pool elevator in Aney’s honor. 

Aney, who began swimming for the Penguins in her freshman year, was a record-setting student-athlete, earning her numerous accolades and awards, from Most Valuable Player in the PSAL to the Francine Schnarr Memorial Award for Outstanding Senior Swimmer in the PSAL (2019-2020). In 2020, Aney was named a Spectrum News NY1 Scholar Athlete. Then a Stuyvesant senior, Aney had a bright future ahead of her in the world of competitive swimming and beyond and was even recruited by Carnegie Mellon University for the Swimming and Diving Team. Unfortunately, the onset of the pandemic and Aney’s cancer diagnosis shortly afterward prevented her from ever swimming for the university. 

Nearly nine months after Aney’s tragic death, her loved ones’ devastation from her absence was apparent as friends, family, and teachers gathered to remember and honor her legacy. The service and dedication were organized by physical education teacher Silvana Choy and Athletics Director Peter Bologna, both of whom served as coaches for the Stuyvesant girls’ swimming and diving team in Aney’s years at Stuyvesant. “From the turnout at the unveiling ceremony and the church service in the spring, it is apparent that she touched many lives and had a profound effect on all those who knew her. I think that is more meaningful than all her records, medals, and awards. So many people loved Arielle for the truly beautiful person she was,” Choy said in an e-mail interview. 

The event began with a powerful performance of “You Raise Me Up” by the Stuyvesant Chorus, which was also performed in Aney’s honor at the Spring Concert in March—in her time at Stuyvesant, Aney was a dedicated member of the Stuyvesant Chorus. The performance was followed by deeply personal and moving speeches from Arielle’s friends, family, and coaches. 

Choy, who coached Aney in her time on the Penguins, remembered her as an inspirational athlete who led with kindness and modesty, always offering her teammates pointers and volunteering to swim any races the team needed. “Arielle joining the swim team was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Choy said. “Arielle was someone who always put others ahead of herself. She was someone that you could always count on—really count on. [...] She was funny without realizing it, and she was really, really kind. What set her apart was her kindness, her compassion, and how much she truly cared about others.” 

Choy’s remembrance was followed with stories from Aney’s friends and family, who remembered her clever sense of humor, deep investment in the lives of those she cared about, love for anime and drawing, impressive work ethic, and humility in all her achievements. From anecdotes about Aney’s constant sketching habit to the humorous skits she concocted in French class, these touching speeches memorialized Aney, her lasting impact on the space palpable as the scent of chlorine drifted in from the pool she so often frequented. 

Bologna described the immense influence Aney had on the Stuyvesant community and especially her teammates. “[Arielle] cared so much about the team and about how well they did. She loved helping people and then reaping the benefits of what she was trying to help them with because she was a wealth of knowledge with swimming. [...] I’ve coached many, many girls and boys, and there are just a handful of people that work as hard or in that category as Arielle,” Bologna said.

After the speeches, the curtain covering Aney’s plaque was removed, revealing an engraving of Aney standing by the pool in her swimsuit and swim cap, a huge smile plastered on her face. “The first thing I notice on that plaque every day is her photo and her smile in that photo, because that specific look is what a lot of people remember about her. She wasn’t very open and talkative, but that smile really represented her heart and her soul and who she was,” Bologna said. “Many, many times she was truly pleased with other people and what they accomplished, and a lot of times that meant more to her—other people succeeding—than her own success.” 

Next to the engraving are the words: “Her work ethic was inspirational. Her passion, discipline, talent, and humility were respected by all. Her kindness, generosity, and appreciation for the world around her made her a genuine friend. Her gentle spirit, laugh, and warm smile will be with us forever,” a message selected by some of Aney’s closest friends. “I wanted the inscription to capture who Arielle was. It was hard to come up with the perfect inscription. Arielle’s dear friends, Eliza Knapp (‘22) and Corinne Pita (‘20), worked hard to help me find the right words to describe Arielle,” Choy said.

The inscription has a special meaning for Choy. “I hope when people read the words, they get a sense of who Arielle was and how we felt about her. She was the hardest worker I ever coached,” Choy said. “Teammates, opponents, and other coaches all respected her for her work ethic and talent, but more importantly how humble she was, even when she would blow her competition out of the water. She was an incredible friend and so genuine. She was so loved and will be missed greatly.”

Still, Choy recognizes the limitations of the plaque’s brief inscription. “As meaningful as the inscription is, it fails to capture Arielle’s spirit and what a beautiful human being she was. She always had a way to bring a smile to my face and that is how I will always remember her,” Choy said. 

Though both Choy and Bologna feel that no words will ever be able to entirely capture the person Arielle was, they feel that trying to do so is the best they can do. “I think those words were chosen very carefully, and that certainly embodies what she was about and how she carried herself,” Bologna said. 

Despite the seamless unveiling ceremony, creating Aney’s plaque required months of hard work, long phone calls, and careful planning—Choy and Bologna carried out each step personally. “Mr. Bologna and I were involved from start to finish, from finding the company, securing the funding to cover the cost (Stuyvesant Parent Teacher Association and Stuyvesant Alumni Association generously paid for it), conceptualizing the plaque, choosing just the right photo, finalizing the inscription [with the help of] Arielle’s dear friends, Eliza Knapp and Corinne Pita, approving the proof from the company, and overseeing where the plaque would be placed at school,” Choy said. “It was very [time-consuming], but it was important to both of us that it be done properly, so we were very [hands-on] from start to finish.”

Both Choy and Bologna are extremely grateful for the help they received along the way. The multistep process required collaboration at every stage to ensure that the plaque was representative of Aney’s legacy. “It went in three steps. The photo of Arielle was the first thing we had, which we got from an alumn[us], [Derek Tran (‘18)]. Tran was on the boys’ [swimming and diving] team; he was also captain. [...] He took the original photo of Arielle, which was slightly different,” Bologna said. Due to the photo’s background, which was blurred and also contained numerous other people, editing it was necessary. Senior and Photo Editor for The Spectator Sophia Mueller took a new photo of the pool from the exact location where Aney was standing. Then, Aney was photoshopped onto the new background. 

The process didn’t end there, though. “We e-mailed all that to the company, and then the company e-mail[ed] back a proof. We then changed it slightly because it didn’t look exactly the way we wanted it—it was a little askew—and we fixed it again, and then it was a process, and it happened basically over the summer,” Bologna said.

Though Choy and Bologna originally planned to hold the ceremony in June, when Aney’s friends would be home from college, they quickly realized that the plaque would not be ready in time. In order to ensure that the plaque was finished by September, both Choy and Bologna came into the school building over the summer to coordinate the delivery and make extensive phone calls to the company that designed the plaque. When the plaque finally arrived, they began planning the unveiling ceremony. “It was important to us that Alex (Arielle’s brother) could attend, so I contacted Arielle’s family and we chose a date that would work for Alex, as well as for Arielle’s friends who were away at college. I asked some of her close friends to speak at the ceremony [...], and [Choral Director Liliya] Shamazov graciously asked us if we would like the chorus to sing since Arielle was a chorus member for four years. Arielle’s friends helped me to come up with a list of everyone we should invite,” Choy said. 

Leading up to the unveiling ceremony, both Choy and Bologna felt nervous because they wanted everything to go as smoothly as possible. “Personally, the unveiling ceremony was hard, very emotional. Leading up to the day was physically and emotionally strenuous to us because we wanted the best obviously [...] Physically unveiling the plaque for the family was both very nice and very sad [...] We were anxious about how people were gonna receive it, but honestly, we couldn’t ask for anything better,” Bologna said. 

The success of the unveiling ceremony is a testament to the immense love that still follows Aney. “I think when Arielle was here, she left a big mark on the school, and you would have to know her to truly understand what we’re talking about—it’s very hard to articulate this. We, as teachers [and] coaches wanted a reminder for not only us, but for all students or anybody that really sees it, of how much of an impact she had on us, and that’s a small representation of that,” Bologna said.

For Choy, the plaque is about more than just sharing Aney’s story with the Stuyvesant community—it is about letting Aney’s family know how much she meant to her and everyone else who crossed paths with Aney at Stuyvesant. “My goal was to recognize Arielle for what she meant to the Stuyvesant family and for us to always have a place where we could remember her and ensure that she will never be forgotten. I’m sure it will feel differently for everyone when they see her plaque,” Choy said.