Cranbrook Pulls Far Ahead for Repeat, GR Christian's Sytsma Adds to Title Total

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

March 9, 2024

HOLLAND – The Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood boys swimming & diving team cleared a major hurdle last year in winning the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals by a narrow margin.

This year, the role of favorite suited the Cranes just fine as they rolled to a repeat Saturday at Holland Aquatic Center.

Cranbrook put forth an impressive all-around effort and finished with 380 points to overwhelm the rest of the field.

East Grand Rapids (243) edged Holland Christian (211) for second place, while Adrian (151) finished fourth. 

“I think last year, when we got over that hump and we won the meet, we saw what we had coming back,” Cranbrook coach Paul Ellis said. “I feel like the boys were a lot more relaxed all season. We didn't have that ‘we’re chasing it’ mindset, and it was about widening the gap and the boys did a phenomenal job.

Cranbrook won two individual events with seniors Andrew Delzer (100-yard breaststroke) and Colin Zexter (100 backstroke) and collected relay titles in the 200 medley and 400 freestyle.

“We had great leaders on our team,” Ellis said. “We had a couple seniors come in that haven't swam for us before, and they really helped bring us all together. They are all team players, they care about their teammates and they bust their butt and set a good example that helped everyone make a huge step forward in terms of training and in bringing that team atmosphere together.

“It helped in how they swam. We had so many lifetime bests this weekend and throughout the season, and it was really fun. It was an enjoyable season.”

Grand Rapids Christian's Ben Sytsma looks to the scoreboard and celebrates.Delzer and Zexter joined Joseph Wiater and Will Farner on the 200 medley and AJ and Will Farner on the 400 relay.

“All of our seniors stepped up and were scoring points, and we had a blast,” Delzer said. “There definitely was a target on our back, but we weren't going to let anyone hunt us down. It was a privilege to be in that position, and we had a great time doing it.”

This was Zexter’s first year on the Cranbrook team after swimming club previously.

“This one was amazing, and it's my first one,” Zexter said. “I did high school just to have fun, and the whole team this season was like family. We were so close, and to have the perfect season and be undefeated is the best feeling.”

Grand Rapids Christian’s Ben Sytsma was named Swimmer of Meet by the Michigan Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association after a dominating performance to cap off an illustrious career.

Sytsma added two more individual titles to his career total by winning the 50 and 100 freestyle events. He also helped the Eagles to a victory in the 200 freestyle relay and a runner-up effort in the 400.

His time of 43.87 in the first 100-yard leg of the 400 relay was an LP Division 3 Finals record. He finished his high school career with four individual championships and having been part of three relay winners.

“I really just wanted to go out with a bang,” Sytsma said. “The boys and I worked really hard, and I was really proud of how they did.

“We really wanted to win those relays. We came up short in the 400, but beat our school record so I think we are all very satisfied with how it ended up.”

Otsego's Liam Smith, bottom, pulls away for the win in the butterfly. Sytsma recorded a time of 19.98 in the 50 and became only the second swimmer in meet history to break 20 seconds.

“That was Cam Peel (in 2019), and I always looked up to him as an idol and followed his career,” Sytsma said. “I wanted to be like him in that 50, break 20, and I wasn't the first to do it, but I was the second one so I’m happy with that.

“There were definitely goals I had coming into this meet, state records I was looking at. I came up short in the 50 and that 100 record in the final relay was really emotional for me. I was happy with myself.”

East Grand Rapids placed runner-up for the second straight year.

“Second place in this year’s meet is all you could hope for,” Pioneers coach Milton Briggs said. “Cranbrook is definitely far and away better than all of us, so for us to come in and take second among this talent, you have to feel good about that. We knew it was going to be close between us and Holland Christian.”

East Grand Rapids was led by senior Carter Kegle, who won the 500 for the third consecutive year and claimed top honors in the 200 freestyle.

Otsego sophomore Liam Smith won two individual titles. He repeated in the 100 butterfly (48.02) and also swam to victory in the 200 IM (1:48.64).

Chelsea senior Mitch Brown defended his diving title. He recorded a score of 503.05 to finish ahead of runner-up Carson Reynolds of DeWitt.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Cranbrook Kingswood celebrates its victory Saturday at Holland Aquatic Center. (Middle) Grand Rapids Christian's Ben Sytsma looks to the scoreboard and celebrates. (Below) Otsego's Liam Smith, bottom, pulls away for the win in the butterfly. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)