Cranes Climb Pool Podium for 1st Time

March 8, 2014

By Dean Holzwarth
Special to Second Half 

HOLLAND – The Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood boys swimming and diving team had all the motivation it needed entering Saturday’s MHSAA Division 3 Finals at Holland Aquatic Center. 

Last year was still fresh in the minds of the Cranes after a runner-up finish to East Grand Rapids by only four points.

It provided the perfect incentive, and Cranbrook-Kingswood avenged that loss while capturing the program’s first MHSAA title. 

The Cranes scored 297 points to win the Finals in a competitive race among a handful of teams.

Chelsea placed runner-up with 273.33 points, while East Grand Rapids (256.83) was third and St. Joseph (197) fourth. 

“This carries over from last year with our four-point loss,” Cranbrook-Kingswood coach Karl Hodgson said. “These guys have done nothing but talk about that, and they’ve been thinking about that for basically 12 months. The motivation factor was all probably done on them, and I didn’t have to do a whole lot with that part. But I couldn’t be happier with their performance in the water.”

Cranes co-captain and senior Ben Schneider said the team was determined to improve upon last year and make school history. 

“I think we knew from last year that we definitely had what it took to get it, and that was on our minds from the first day of practice and every practice since then,” he said. “We’ve had our eyes on the prize and we finally got it.”

Nate Tattrie, also a senior and co-captain, was thrilled with the team’s push toward a goal that didn’t seem possible a short while ago. 

“This feels excellent,” Tattrie said. “Four years ago we would not imagine that we would be here. It’s amazing, and everyone worked really hard over the summer so we knew coming in that we had a good chance.”

The Cranes opened the meet with a win in the 200 medley relay behind the foursome of Mitch Buccalo, Giorgio DeGrosso, Andrew Guan and Frankie Misra. 

Buccalo also won the 200 IM with a time of 1:53.43.

“The biggest key was winning the medley,” Hodgson said. “I knew we had a shot at it, and that sort of set the tone for the rest of the day. The rest of it took care of itself, and we knew it was going to be close going in with about four or five teams. All I wanted them to do was swim fast Friday to put us in position today. That’s what we did.” 

Chelsea’s finish was the highest in school history. It took third in 1996 and fifth a year ago.

“We did the best we could in prelims and got enough kids in position where they could score,” Chelsea coach Dave Jolly said. “I laid out a formula (Friday) night and the kids bought into it. I knew we had to come ready to go today, and there were a few trials and tribulations. But we came out really successful.” 

Jacob Burris won the 1-meter diving event over teammate Joe Smith.

Burris finished with a final score of 452.05, while Smith had a 421. Defending two-time champion Henry Swett of Marshall took third (410.95). 

“They brought their “A” game, and success breeds success,” Jolly said. “We just kept clicking and clicking, and at the end we got the first runner-up finish in the history of our program.”

Holland Christian senior Parker Cook-Weeks duplicated his success from a year ago with wins in the 200 and 500 freestyles, both times defeating rival Kurt Swieter of East Grand Rapids. Cook-Weeks clocked a 1:38.95 in the 200 and 4:36.61 in the 500. 

“It had to be the most fun thing I’ve ever had in my career,” Cook-Weeks said. “Me and Kurt go back a long time ago, to age group swimming, and it has always been a battle. Defending my title against him was fun, and it was a fun run for my last year here.”

Cook-Weeks has committed to swim at Olivet Nazarene next season. 

“There was a lot of pressure on me this year,” Cook-Weeks said. “I had pressure from my school because they wanted me to do good, and I got pressure from my college coaches because they wanted me to do good so I can come in their next year and do my best. It was huge pressure, but I was able to deal with it.”

The biggest buzz from the meet came at the conclusion of the 200 freestyle relay. 

East Grand Rapids, Detroit Country Day and Chelsea finished in a three-way tie with identical times of 1:27.08

“I’ve been swimming and coaching for too many years than I would like to admit, but I’ve never ever seen three relays tie it up and then to have 12 individual swims and come out to the hundredth,” Jolly said. “That’s insane, and it was perfect to have those quality of kids all on the stand together. It says a lot about our division. It was a great meet.” 

Hodgson thought there was a problem with the clock.

“I thought it was a malfunction on the board,” he said. “I have been coaching high school swimming for about 30 years and that’s a first. It was kind of cool, and the people around me had ever seen it before, too.”

Milan senior Oliver Smith was the lone record-setter at this season's meet, doing so in the 50 freestyle with a time of 20.78.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood celebrates its first MHSAA team swimming and diving championship. (Middle) Milan's Oliver Smith launches into a record-setting swim in the 50 freestyle. (Click to see 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.)