Cranes Emerge from Strong D3 Field

March 11, 2017

By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half

HOLLAND – The Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood boys swimming & diving team made it four straight championships at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals, but this title took every point the Cranes could muster.

Cranbrook Kingswood finished first at the event that took place at the Holland Aquatics Center with a total of 268 points. Only 41 separated the top four teams. East Grand Rapids, last year’s runner-up, placed second with 255 points, followed by Holland Christian in third with 241.5 and Chelsea in fourth with 227 points.

Cranes coach Karl Hodgson knew coming in that any number of teams could come away with the first-place trophy.

“Division 3 is a lot tougher the last few years,” Hodgson said, “especially this year. In the past, there would be two or three teams that had a chance to win it. This year, there were four, five and even six teams that were very tough and had a shot at it.”

Making the task even tougher for Cranbrook Kingswood this season was the number of talented seniors who graduated from last year’s team.

This title was a major accomplishment for this year’s seniors.

“This is surreal,” said Cranbrook Kingswood senior captain Giorgio Guttilla. “It’s an awesome feeling to win it four years in a row.”

Guttilla credits the team’s can-do attitude for making the difference on the final day.

“The difference was we all had a great attitude going into the Finals,” Guttilla said. “We were determined to win, and it just showed.”

Balance also played a key role in Cranbrook Kingswood’s win. Al three of the Cranes’ relay teams placed in the top three. The 200-yard medley relay team of sophomore Oliver Cafferty, senior Matthew Yang, junior Kevin Hao and senior Michael McLaughlin placed second, as did the 400 free relay team of junior Lucas Misra, Eric Youshao, Hao and Cafferty.

Cafferty claimed the lone individual title for Cranbrook Kingswood as he won the 100 backstroke by almost two full seconds with a time of 50.72.

“It was a phenomenal feeling,” Cafferty said. “It was crazy getting out of the pool and having everybody cheering.”

A sophomore, Cafferty has been a part of two team championships and points to his teammates’ camaraderie as being a key to success.

“Winning back-to-back state titles is a great feeling,” Cafferty said. “For the seniors it has got to be a crazy feeling. We put in tons of work this year. I think we worked harder this year than any other year. Everybody cheers each other on, and everyone wants to see each other succeed. I was not as sure that we would win it this year. I thought we might finish second or third, but to come in first feels amazing.”

East Grand Rapids provided Cranbrook Kingswood with its biggest challenge. The second-place Pioneers received a huge effort from junior Christian Bart. Bart not only won two events, but he also set multiple LP Division 3 Finals records in the process. Bart captured the 50 freestyle in a time of 20.64 and then won the 100 breaststroke in a time of 55.82.

“I’ve been working all year for this,” Bart said. “I’m very happy to have set the records. The competition was very tough, and that is why I posted those times. The races were so close and the times were so good because of the competition.”

East Grand Rapids also picked up plenty of points in the diving competition. Senior Grant Williams took first place as he scored a total of 456.65 points. Pioneers freshman Nick Merritt placed fourth with a total of 428.05.

Holland Christian gave the hometown fans plenty to cheer about as the Maroons placed third as a team.

Junior Skyler Cook-Weeks was one of two individual champions for Holland Christian. Cook-Weeks defended his championship in the 500 freestyle as he took first place with a time of 4:26.96. That time also broke his Division 3 Finals record set last year.

“Last year it was a surreal feeling for me,” Cook-Weeks said. “This year it was a different feeling. What made it special was having my teammate swimming with me. Luke Mason was right behind me, and he finished second so Holland Christian placed one-two.”

With two titles to his credit, Cook-Weeks not only has his sights set on another title next season but also a new record-breaking time.

“I want to try and get 4:19 next year,” Cook-Weeks said.

While Mason placed second to his teammate in the 500, the Holland Christian junior won his individual title earlier in the day. Mason, in his first year with the Holland Christian team after previously swimming on club teams, turned in a time of 1:52.79 to win the 200 individual medley.

“It’s just a great feeling,” Mason said. “It’s great being a part of a great team like this with great teammates. It’s been a great experience.”

Both Mason and Cook-Weeks were also part of a relay team that captured a title for Holland Christian. Along with sophomores Jacob Heeres and Riley VanMeter, Mason and Cook-Weeks helped the 400 free relay team to the win with a time of 3:07.25.

Senior Rudy Aguilar of Pontiac Notre Dame Prep also claimed a pair of individual titles and set a Division 3 record in the process. Aguilar won the 200 freestyle in a record time of 1:37.37 and also the 100 freestyle in a time of 45.71.

Aguilar edged a familiar face on his way to winning the 200, Cook-Weeks of Holland Christian by less than a second. 

“I’ve known Skylar a long time and we’ve been swimming against each other in high school the last two years,” Aguilar said. “The atmosphere here is great and racing against each other made our times faster. I give all the glory to God. I also want to thank everyone who has helped me and my coaches and teammates at Notre Dame.”

Byron Center junior Nolan Briggs captured his first-ever Finals title when he won the 100 butterfly in a time of 49.85. The title was especially sweet for Briggs, who stopped swimming for a while before high school.

“I actually didn’t swim for a year,” Briggs said. “We moved from Holland to Byron Center and then coach Kimble (Don Kimble) got me back in it my freshman year. It was a great feeling being up on that podium. When I was younger I would come here for the Finals. To win my first state title is a great feeling.”

Chelsea was led to its fourth-place finish by its relay teams – the 200 medley relay as seniors Kurt Jolly, Zach Lee, Lee Argir and Joey Mangner turned in a time of 1:34.71, and the 200 free relay as the team of Lee, sophomore Wes Wickens, senior Collin Babycz and Mangner turned in a time of 1:25.21.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: Cranbrook Kingswood’s Oliver Cafferty swims the 100 backstroke Saturday. (Middle) East Grand Rapids’ Christian Bart works toward a meet record 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.)