Ambrose Era: Generations of Success

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

February 26, 2019

KENTWOOD – When Jock Ambrose began his coaching career during the mid 1970s, sports options were limited in the community he had recently moved to after college.

The construction of a new indoor community pool, however, sent residents flocking to the water.

The Kentwood Public Schools Aquatic Center presented an opportunity for parents to introduce swimming to their children, and Ambrose would eventually reap the rewards.

“We did not have the ice arena, and soccer for boys and girls was not a sport yet,” Ambrose said. “Water polo wasn’t a high school sport either so there were fewer choices, but the draw of the pool was huge within our community.

“For eight to 10 years, young go-getter parents brought their kids a lot to swimming and it took off from there.”

Ambrose started coaching high school boys swimming in 1976, and after 38 seasons, he recently announced he would retire after this winter season after an illustrious career filled with success.

“‘I’m seeing that my energy level, as I get older, is not what it used to be,” said Ambrose, who retired from teaching four years ago.

“I never imagined I would coach forever, and my wife, Ann, and I want to do things with our kids and grandchildren. I’ve had a tremendous last year of teaching great students and great kids in the pool with wonderful parents.”

For the 65-year-old Ambrose, the decision to step down was made easier knowing that he’s leaving the program in good hands.

His successor won’t officially be named until after the season.

“We have a young man in the program who is more than ready to take over and continue to improve the program,” Ambrose said. “He’s ready to have a long career and is tremendous with the kids and parents. It would’ve been harder to walk away if I didn’t have someone like that, but I feel completely confident in where this program is going in the future and he is going to equal and surpass what we’ve had in the last several years.”

The East Kentwood boys swimming & diving program hit its peak during the 1980s, emerging as a perennial powerhouse.

The Falcons won Class A titles in 1983 and 1989 while also finishing as Finals runners-up in 1985, 1986 and 1988.

They finished in the top three seven consecutive years and became the benchmark for other programs to follow.

“There is no doubt in those years that we had some tremendous athletes,” Ambrose said.

Eric Gale was an All-American diver for East Kentwood and as a senior considered one of the top five divers in the country on the way to competing at the University of Tennessee.

Gale still holds several conference and meet records at the high school and has been the team’s diving coach the past 31 years.

“He is truly a class act, and it has been my honor to be one of the student-athletes under him and to have coached with him,” Gale said of Ambrose. “He is a tremendous human being and treats everyone he comes in contact with with respect and kindness, and that includes members of opposing teams he has faced.

“He’s the definition of what an educator should be, and he has positively affected thousands of lives in the swimming community and education.”

In 1997, Ambrose accepted the position of athletic director at East Kentwood and was away from coaching for five years.

He returned to the classroom and came back to the pool.

He also coached the girls team for three years during the 1990s, and that included coaching his youngest daughter.

As Ambrose’s coaching career continued, he began to see an influx of former athletes’ children.

“All the way through I’ve had tremendous family and community support for what we’ve tried to do, and I get one sibling after another,” Ambrose said. “Every year for the last 12 or 15 years I’ve had at least one person whose parent swam for me, and one year I had five boys on the team whose mom or dad swam for me in high school or within our club.

“It feels good when a parent brings their kid back knowing what they went through was a good place for them. The support of the parents helps you to continue the levels of success.”

East Kentwood athletic director Blaine Brumels said Ambrose has been a “true blessing to Kentwood Public Schools.”

“His hard work, dedication and commitment to our students in the classroom and the pool are unbelievable,” Brumels said. “We always have great stories about Jock, and they are always about his love of kids and being a Falcon. It is always about the students and love of the school and sport.”

Although Ambrose will remain with the program as an assistant coach for a couple years, his last MHSAA Finals directing it will take place in a couple weeks.

“We have a good group of seniors who are working hard, and we think we can get some kids to score and get to the second day,” Ambrose said. “It will be exciting for the entire program.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTO: East Kentwood coach Jock Ambrose revs up his team before the start of the 2009 Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Eastern Michigan University. 

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for

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.)