6 Hundredths Seal West Ottawa Title Win

By Greg Chrapek
Special for Second Half

March 9, 2019

HOLLAND – In a matter of minutes, Holland West Ottawa senior Khadin Soto’s disappointment of placing second in the breaststroke was replaced by the euphoria of clinching his school’s first MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 swimming & diving championship.

Swimming the anchor leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay, Soto touched the wall a mere six hundredths of a second before Detroit Catholic Central’s anchorman, giving West Ottawa the race win and the overall team title – its first in any division in nearly 50 years.

Soto and his relay teammates Jamahl Hogan, Sam Smith and Derek Maas turned in a time of 3:05.84, edging the Catholic Central team of Matthew Kozma, Bennett Loniewski, Mario McDonald and Conor Brownell. The win proved to be the difference maker as the meet came down to the final race with West Ottawa totaling 248 points to edge Detroit Catholic Central’s 240.

“I knew the meet was within a few points, and I knew we had to win that race,” said Soto. “I knew I had to beat the guy next to me and I knew he was really fast. Since I didn’t win the 100 breaststroke like I thought I would, I just kept telling myself that I can’t get caught up in everything else. I just need to do what my teammates need me to do. Just swim like we have been all year. For the last lap I was telling myself I can’t be the one that loses it for everyone.”

That determination paid off as Soto’s finishing kick was enough to give the Panthers the win and wash away Soto’s disappointment.

“I was just super excited,” Soto said. “Before I looked up at the board, I kind of had this feeling that we won. Then just seeing it, I was overwhelmed with emotions. It was like the perfect ending.”   

Soto had little time to prepare for his crucial swim as he placed second in the breaststroke, which took place before the 400-yard relay.

“Khadin was coming out of the breaststroke, so he was coming right off of a swim,” said West Ottawa coach Steve Bowyer. “We were hoping to give him a little bit of a lead. He didn’t have much of a lead, but he battled back there at the end.”

West Ottawa had finished second in 2018, as it just missed its first Finals title since winning three straight in Class B-C-D from 1969-71. Detroit Catholic Central was swimming for its first Finals championship in this sport and came on strong down the stretch.  

“Detroit Catholic Central had an unbelievable meet,” Bowyer said. “They fought really hard today. We had about 14 points on them after prelims. They came back and fought hard today and brought it right down to the last relay. They don’t get any closer than six hundredths of a second. We feel very fortunate to be on the winning end of that relay.”

Soto is part of a memorable senior class that fueled the Panthers’ drive to the title. Derek Maas is the headliner of West Ottawa’s senior class. Along with swimming a leg of the 400 relay and the winning 200 medley relay, Maas also captured a pair of individual titles. Heading to the University of Alabama next season, Maas won the 200 IM and the butterfly. Having talented teammates to train with has been a key to his success.

“It all starts at our practices,” Maas said. “I always have my teammates with me. It’s way easier to train hard with guys around you that are pushing you. It’s awesome to go out like this as a senior, especially with how the season has gone with the team. Winning the state team title was the ultimate goal.”

Maas teamed up with Soto, junior Gavin Temple and his younger brother, freshman Kevin Maas, to win the 200 medley relay. A versatile swimmer whose main event at the college level will be the 200 breaststroke, Maas won the Division 2 title in the 100 backstroke last year.

“Being a versatile swimmer has helped me,” Maas said. “I have three of the four strokes down pretty good.”

Maas was not the lone dual winner at the Finals as Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central senior Henry Schutte capped his high school career by winning both the 50 and 100 freestyles.

Schutte, who is headed to the University of Virginia to continue his career, won the 50 in 20.46 and captured the 100 in 44.82 seconds.

Schutte closed out his prep career as a six-time Finals champion. Schutte won the 50 and 100 freestyles as both a sophomore and junior. He credited his fellow competitors from around the state for helping him achieve success during his high school career.  

“It’s been a blast,” Schutte said. “The past three or four years it’s been awesome to be a part of such a great group of athletes. My competitors have everything to do with that. We push ourselves to be the best, and it’s such a great atmosphere. I love it.”

Howell junior Hunter Gubeno also finished the day as a dual winner, winning the 200 freestyle in 1:39.63 and capturing the 500 freestyle in 4:31.39.

Ann Arbor Skyline senior diver William Henry Schirmer closed out his career as a three-time champion. Schirmer won this time by almost 100 points as he totaled 514.55.

Schirmer, who will dive at Northwestern University, said he felt little pressure in going for the three-peat this season.

“I came in wanting to have a lot of fun with it,” Schirmer said. “It’s my senior year, and I just relaxed and focused on doing what I know I can do. I wanted to stay consistent and have fun with it. It’s my last time being at the state meet, and it’s a great feeling being here with my teammates.”

A pair of seniors closed out their careers by capturing individual state titles. Birmingham Brother Rice senior Liam McDonnell won the 100-backstroke in a time of 50.19. Northville senior Travis Nitkiewicz won the 100-breaststroke in a time of 55.27.

In the 200-freestyle relay, the Harrison-Farmington team of Tristan Strasberger, Trevor Jones, Jared Visser and Brody Jamieson took first place in a time of 1:25.24.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Holland West Ottawa’s Derek Maas was part of four championships Saturday, two individually and as part of two relays. (Middle) Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central’s Henry Schutte launches from the blocks on the way to winning the 50-yard freestyle. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

Aaron Thomas easily could have decided that swimming wasn't going to be part of his life.

Mid-MichiganThe DeWitt senior could've pieced together some combination of his other entertainment interests to fill his time. For instance, he could have spent more time with friends or immersed himself in video games. Or maybe devoted more time to a flirtation with golf or playing trumpet in the school band. Thomas also could have gained a head start on college and his ultimate goal of a degree in biomedical engineering.

Considering the lifetime of challenges he's faced in swimming, those seemed more tenable options.

Instead, Thomas chose the tougher path.

"My life is swimming," he said. "I've been in water so much, I've never looked back."

By "looking back," Thomas means ignoring a disability that would have turned many youngsters away from the pool. He was born without 65 percent of his pointer finger on his left hand and with a thumb that's only about 90-percent intact. The other three fingers stop at the top of the knuckle. As DeWitt coach Brock Delaney explains, much of a swimmer’s success comes from the power of fingers and subsequent strength in the hands – and without that combination, swimmers are at an immediate disadvantage.

But rather than letting those obstacles keep him high and dry, Thomas has excelled and finished this season with a historic first. He qualified for the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals in the 200-yard individual medley and finished 29th and also competed in the Paralympic 100 freestyle exhibition event and topped all divisions with a time of 54.07 seconds. In doing so, Thomas became the first competitor to swim that combination at a Finals meet.

Thomas additionally this winter made DeWitt's Century Club of swimmers who have amassed 100 points in a season for the second time, and he has earned National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (NISCA) Paralympic All-American honors in the 200-yard freestyle (1:56.64), 200 IM (2:08.21), and 500 free (5:11.58). He also competes in Paralympic swimming as part of the Mid-Michigan Aquatics Club.

To some, the quest for those achievements likely would seem a long and difficult path. But to Thomas, it's business as usual. A disability? What disability, offers Thomas, whose ultimate goal is swimming in the 2028 Summer Paralympics in Los Angeles.

"I've always loved swimming," he said. "When I'm in the water, I never worry about anything. I just feel free."

Thomas posted the fastest time across all divisions in the Paralympic 100 freestyle exhibition at this season’s Finals. And Thomas has found a way to even the playing field, Delaney said.

"He's such a hard worker who has made up for a left-hand deficiency," Delaney said. "He's legit, a strong kid who loves to swim. "

But determination can take a swimmer only so far. Delaney said Thomas, classified as an S10 swimmer for Paralympic events, has developed physical strategies to increase his performance. In the backstroke, for instance, Thomas swims with his left hand underwater to help in propulsion. For speed, Thomas tries to keep his body on his "power side."

The rest, Delaney said, is simply heart.

"He moved here from Alma between his eighth grade and freshmen years," he said. "If not our hardest worker, he's in the top three. He's got something not all athletes have."

Thomas said one of the chief reasons he spends so much time around pools is the type of person he finds there. He describes people who combine encouragement and understanding with a will to compete despite any perceived physical shortcomings. What he's learned from them not only explains his swim career, but teaches valuable life lessons as well.

In fact, Thomas' career plans, beginning at Hope College in the fall, include securing a degree in biomedical engineering with an ultimate plan to help build prosthetics.

"Getting to know people in the prosthetic field really interests me," he said. "Swimming and prosthetics have been a nice tie-in with school. Prosthetics ties it all together for me."

Thomas said he can think of only a single instance where he questioned whether he should follow his love of swimming. But that thought quickly passed, and he's thrown himself into the sport ever since.

"I wouldn't trade my disability for the world," he said. "It's given me so many opportunities. The whole club and school thing and getting to the state meet never would have happened.”

Thomas will swim at Hope, and his goal is to qualify for the 200 IM at the Los Angeles Paralympic games. Thomas estimates he's within 15 seconds of qualifying in that meet's long course event.

"It's achievable," he said. "For sure it's doable."

Whether he makes it to Los Angeles or if his swim career quietly winds down, Thomas, who describes himself as competitive, said he still will have gained something for which everyone strives, athlete or not.

"Water has always been a safe spot for me," he said. "I think I've always used it as kind of a break from life. It helps clear my head.

“I've always been taught that you get out of work what you put into it. Work always pays off in the end. I've always remembered that.”

PHOTOS (Top) Aaron Thomas races for the DeWitt swimming & diving team. (Middle) Thomas posted the fastest time across all divisions in the Paralympic 100 freestyle exhibition at this season’s Finals. (Photos provided by the DeWitt swimming & diving program and Thomas family.)