Bayer's Awe-Inspiring Diving Record Paces East Grand Rapids Repeat

By Steve Vedder
Special for

March 12, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – Charley Bayer knew he had at least broken a pair of much-wanted records, but the real shock came after he climbed out of the pool following his last dive.

With one dive to go at Saturday's Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals, the East Grand Rapids senior knew he had already broken the Calvin University pool and LPD3 Finals records. But that didn't compare with smashing Michigan's all-class/division Finals record with his final dive. The result concluded a dynamic, once-in-lifetime performance with a score of 590.85.

The mark broke former Ann Arbor native, University of Michigan All-American and Olympic silver medalist Bruce Kimball's previous mark of 584.75 set 41 years ago. Bayer's previous best was a 555 at this season's Division 3 Invite.

"It wasn't on my radar," Bayer said of the new mark. "I was going for the Calvin and D3 records. "It was the most put-together, most consistent diving ever for me. I can look back and things couldn't have been better. I feel real good about it."

Bayer, who will dive for South Carolina next season, admitted he could find little room for things he could have improved upon. He had scored a 399.45 in Friday's first day of diving.

"There is no such thing as perfect," he said. "But I'm so happy with this. I did as well as I could."

The performance helped East Grand Rapids successfully repeat as champion. The Pioneers, who feature a roster of barely a dozen swimmers, finished with 272 points to outdistance a heavily west-wide showing. Holland Christian finished runner-up with 214 points, Spring Lake was third with 191 and Grand Rapids Christian fourth with 187 points. Five of the top seven finishers were from the state's west side.

Like many of the meet's coaches, EGR diving coach Tylor Fick said he was left in awe of Bayer's performance.

"I've never seen a high school diver, or coached against, someone with that talent," he said. "What he did this weekend was incredible. He is a mix of talent and hard work and dedication. Overall, he's just a great, humble young man."

East Grand Rapids divingThe state title was the 11th boys crown to go along with 25 girls Finals championships for coach Butch Briggs. It was the seventh time Briggs' boys and girls teams have won championships in the same school year. In all, EGR has won 51 boys and girls state Class B-C-D or Division 3 titles.

"It's the same old story but with different kids," said Briggs, who began coaching swimmers when he was 20 and is now 73. "Every team is very unique, and this team was a challenge to coach and they came through. It's a group of individuals and it took our captains a whole lot to get them together as a team."

Bayer's stunning showing aside, the Pioneers managed one other first when Carter Kegle won the 500-yard freestyle (4:34.68).

Two swimmers won two events each, including Andrew Dobrzanski of Milan who captured the 200 free (1:41.66) and 100 breaststroke (54.45), the latter breaking the LPD3 Finals record. Dobrzanski said the title came after struggling with back problems early in the season, a tired shoulder midway through the winter and missing a week and a half with other ailments in February. Still, Dobrzanski, who said he never felt completely healthy until a couple weeks ago, thought he would be in the hunt for a crown.

"I knew I had a chance just because of how I am and having the experience of being here before," he said. "It was more satisfying because of what I went through. But I thought it could be a little difficult."

The other double winner was Tyler Ray of Pinckney who won the 100 backstroke (50.05) and the 100 butterfly (47.39).

"I think there was more riding on the fly because that's my best event," he said. "In the backstroke I was just focused on getting to the wall."

One of the meet's winners, Charles Brown of Spring Lake, found himself basking in a moment of revenge in winning the 50 free (20.32). He was runner-up at the wire in that event a year ago. He promised himself it wouldn't happen two years in a row.

"I just got touched out last year, so I just put more work into it this year," said Brown, who was also on the winning 200 medley relay team (1:36.11). "That motivated me a lot; I wasn't going to lose by a point again."

The meet's other individual winners were Erik Bolang of Pinckney in the 200 individual medley (1:52.82) and Ben Sytsma of Grand Rapids Christian in the 100 free (45.63). Grand Rapids Christian also won the 400 free (3:08.73) and 200 free (1:26.04) relays.

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PHOTOS (Top) The East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving team shows its latest Finals championship trophy. (Middle) The Pioneers’ Charley Bayer gets high off the board during one of his dives. (Click for more from

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.)