Brother Rice Repeats in True Team Effort

March 14, 2015

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

YPSILANTI – It certainly was not by design, but it seemed like the Birmingham Brother Rice swimmers did not want to take the top step on the winning podium without a teammate by their side.

Brother Rice led from start to finish Saturday in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Swimming and Diving Finals at Michael H. Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University

And the Warriors did it without a single individual champion.

“We have done that quite a few times in the past,” Brother Rice coach Mike Venos said. “It’s almost a tradition around here, and it makes my job easy because these kids know everybody gets to contribute.

“I think that’s what makes us strong. They come in and they are mentored that it’s a whole team effort.”

Last year, Brother Rice dominated the meet, winning by an amazing 143 points. This year, the Warriors finished with a 111-point margin over runner-up Holland West Ottawa.

Brother Rice opened the meet by repeating as champion in the 200-yard medley relay. Mark Blinstrub, Drew Grady, Gust Kouvaris and Jack Kennedy won in 1 minute, 31.68 seconds – more than a second faster than last year’s winning time.

Brother Rice would not return to the top spot on the podium until the final event – the 400 freestyle relay. Kouvaris, sophomore Rudy Aguilar, junior Bobby Powrie and Blinstrub made it a repeat championship in 3:02.58.

Between the two winning relays, the Warriors had seven second-place finishes in the eight individual swimming events. Kouvaris was second in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, Blinstrub was second in the 200 individual medley and 100 free, Aguilar was second in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle and Grady was second in the 100 breaststroke.

“It’s good to win as a team,” Kouvaris said. “We’re a family. We all swim together, and we all train together. For me in the 100 backstroke, standing next to one of my teammates (Alex Margherio, who finished fourth) was the best feeling in the world.

“It feels amazing to be standing up there with these guys.”

Blinstrub was runner-up to two-time champion Jack Walsh in the 200 IM and two-time champion Tabahn Afrik in the 100 freestyle.

“The guys I finished second to are unbelievable,” said Blinstrub, who plans to swim at the University of Pennsylvania. “It doesn’t upset me at all. They are going to Notre Dame and Stanford. They’re incredible guys and incredible swimmers, so to get second to them is fine.

“I do what I do for my team. I did my best.”

Aguilar’s second-place finishes included setting a school-record in the 200 freestyle (1:39.57).

“It has been a pleasure swimming for Brother Rice,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to swim the 400 free relay - that’s basically our relay – and training has been really hard, and it showed.

“As a sophomore I’m really happy with my times. I was really happy with that 200 freestyle, breaking the school record.”

As dominant as Brother Rice was, the meet’s top individual swimmers were Walsh, a Detroit Catholic Central senior who won the 200 IM and 100 backstroke, and Devon Nowicki, a Lake Orion junior who took the 100 butterfly and 100 breaststroke.

Walsh, who plans to continue his swimming career at Stanford, was a repeat winner in the backstroke and improved on his second-place finish from last year in the IM. His winning time of 1:47.26 set an all-division meet record, and his 48.48 in the backstroke set an LP Division 1 meet record.

He did not put the records above the championships.

“It’s always nice to have a record, but a championship is something that can’t be taken away,” he said. “It feels great to have a season of hard work pay off.”

Nowicki’s championships were the first of his career. Last year, he swam distance events, but with a change of coaches, he concentrated more on events that would benefit him in the 200 IM. He was fifth in the 500 freestyle and ninth in the 200 freestyle last year.

“It was different being on top of the podium instead of the lower ones,” Nowicki said. “We changed coaches, and we wanted to focus on something completely different and try something new and see what works.”

Nowicki’s winning time of 53.59 in the breaststroke set an all-division meet record, and he won the butterfly in 48.92.

“The 100 fly I’ve kind of been around but not prominent in, but the 100 breast I’ve been around my whole life,” he said. “Winning the fly was like a happy accident I guess. I’ve always been decent at all the strokes. We just tried to focus more on the fly this year to expand my IM abilities.”

The other double-winner was Holland West Ottawa senior Tabahn Afrik, who won the 50 freestyle in 20.26 seconds – an LP Division 1 meet record – and the 100 freestyle in 44.06. He was the defending champion in both the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle but decided to scrap the 200 and try the 50 this year.

“Honestly, there was no thought going into it other than to just try something new,” said Afrik, who will attend Notre Dame on a full scholarship in the fall. “I have the 100 and the 200 under my belt, so I thought this year I might as well go for the 50, and that’s what we did.”

Afrik also swam the anchor leg for Holland West Ottawa in the 200 freestyle relay. The team finished fourth, but Afrik’s split was an amazing 19.67 seconds, which would have been an all-division meet record had he done it from the first leg of the relay.

“That is the first time I got into the 19s,” he said. “It definitely felt good – a huge milestone that I accomplished. I left it all in the pool. I can’t complain.”

Rockford junior Jake Herremans put on a show in the diving portion of the event. He set a meet record with 528.45 points – the previous record was 494.40 – and left himself looking for more.

“I want to keep hitting those harder dives and make them crisp and clean and possibly try to get my degree of difficulty up a little more,” he said. “I tried to focus on myself and block everything else out. No distractions while I’m on the board, just me in my little happy place.”

Will Brenner of Ann Arbor Huron was runner-up in diving with 500.15 points, and he also was runner-up to Afrik in the 50 freestyle in the event immediately preceding the diving. Brenner’s final dive of an inward two-and-a-half scored in the 7s and 8s and had Herremans clapping as he stood on the board preparing to make his dive.

“That dive was outstanding,” Herremans said. “It was the best dive I’ve ever seen him do. I have to give him so much credit because he did awesome. He’s a great diver and a great kid. I love competing with him.”

Afrik also complimented Brenner and said he was not so sure that Brenner was not going to beat him in the 50 freestyle.

“He had me for the majority of the race,” Afrik said. “I’m not going to lie, I was really impressed with the way he swam. I just turned it up and got him.”

Brenner seemed to take it all in stride.

“I thought it was a great success,” he said. “I thought I nailed the dives. I’m very happy.”

The other individual champions were Kai Williams of Ann Arbor Pioneer in the 200 freestyle (1:38.10) and Trayton Saladin of Bridgman in the 500 freestyle (4:30.99). Williams also swam the anchor leg for Ann Arbor Pioneer as it won the 200 freestyle relay in 1:23.68, breaking the LP Division 1 Finals record.

“We were hoping to get the all-division record, but it’s hard to complain with this,” he said. “The 200 freestyle was my first win ever, so it was exciting.

“I wanted to take it out fast and hold the lead the entire race.”

However, with all the stars and records that dominated the meet, in the end it was the depth of Birmingham Brother Rice that ruled the day. The Warriors had 16 individuals seeded and ended up with 11 entries in the Finals and 14 entries in the consolation races.

“I think we had a lot more underclassmen contribute, and we had so many more kids in the consolation finals this year,” Venos said. “It fired everybody up, watching those kids have their day. It was fantastic.

“It’s a tribute to what these kids have built for themselves.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Brother Rice swimmer competes in the 100 butterfly; five Warriors scored among the top 16 in the event. (Middle) Holland West Ottawa's Mitch Plaggemars swims to 14th place in the 100 breaststroke. (Click to see more at

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.)