Diving & Depth Help Deliver EGR's Latest Finals Win

By Dan D'Addona
Special for Second Half

March 27, 2021

HOLLAND — The East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving team was devastated when last year’s MHSAA Finals were canceled.

The Pioneers were poised to win and immediately set out on a mission to claim the Lower Peninsula Division 3 title this season.

East Grand Rapids won Saturday’s meet with 308 points despite not winning any swimming events.

Of course, diving was another story.

EGR started strong on Friday, going 1-2 in diving with Charley Bayer winning with 490 points, just ahead of teammate Billy Kirchgessner (472.90). Chelsea’s Mitch Brown was third (450.05).

“Everything started flowing together, and it all worked out in the meet for us,” Bayer said. “That is our biggest advantage. Having a teammate that good can push you, and we pushed each other. It is a blessing to be part of a program like this. This team win is the most important in a long time because we wanted a big win last year and it didn’t happen. This was a redemption win.”

The Pioneers earned their record 26th Finals win with their depth and relays.

In the 200-yard freestyle relay, East Grand Rapids finished second in 1:26.89 with Will Laham, Max Jung, Kenny Pontius and Logan McCahill posting the runner-up finish.

“Last year was traumatic. We had a lot of kids work so hard and we had a good chance to win it. This year, just getting to get to the meet was a plus, but to win it without taking any swimming firsts spoke well for the group,” EGR coach Butch Briggs said. “Diving got us 37 points, and you can’t do much better than that. It just got everyone pumped up.”

Lower Peninsula Division 3 boys swimming & diving 2Holland Christian finished second with 218.5 points. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood was third (194), Spring Lake was fourth (196) and Mason was fifth (162).

Holland Christian senior Colin Kalkman won the title in the 100 freestyle, finishing in 45.72. He used a strong finish to pull ahead of runner-up Jacob Ryan (45.92) of Detroit Country Day. Trenton’s Spencer Boling-Hamer was third (47.24).

Kalkman then won the 100 backstroke in 50.96, holding off Pinckney’s Tyler Ray (51.09) and East Grand Rapids’ McCahill (51.45).

The Maroons also won the 400 freestyle relay with Joey Grasman, Christian Hoeksema, Blake Assink and Kalkman touching first in 3:09.58. Spring Lake (3:09.73) was second, followed by Mason (3:10.67).

“That was fantastic to win the final relay. They did what they had to do,” Holland Christian coach Todd Smeenge said. “I am happy for all the seniors, and Colin had a great meet. I am so happy for him. It was satisfying to see that work pay off. We scored about what we thought, but East Grand Rapids ate up all kinds of points.”

The fastest race of the meet was the 100 breaststroke, where the top three finishers bettered the previous Division 3 record. Milan’s Andrew Dobrzanski won the event in 54.67, followed by Cranbrook Kingswood’s Ethan Schwab (55.46) and Otsego’s Owen Stedner (55.85).

Dobrzanski also won the 200 IM in 1:50.07, a dominating performance that beat the field by nearly four seconds. Grand Rapids Christian’s Jacob Haaksma was second (1:53..94), followed by McCahill (1:55.17).

Dobrzanski was named Swimmer of the Meet .

“It means a lot. I was shocked when I saw my name up there,” Dobrzanski said. “The breaststroke was amazing with all of the competition.”

Cranbrook Kingswood won the 200 medley relay in 1:34.97 with Colin Zexter, Ethan Schwab, Josh Zexter and Andrew Zhang.  Spring Lake was second (1:35.51), followed by East Grand Rapids (1:37.63).

Lower Peninsula Division 3 boys swimming & diving 3

Trenton’s Spencer Boling-Hamer won the 200 freestyle in 1:42.21, ahead of Grasman (1:42.40) and Mason’s Jonas Cantrell (1:42.49).

Detroit Country Day’s Ryan dropped nearly half a second from his seed time to win the 50 freestyle in 20.58, holding off Spring Lake’s Charles Brown (20.71) and Mason’s Gabe Williams (21.68) in an extremely fast race.

Pinckney’s Ray was the winner in the 100 butterfly, going 49.23 to hold off Spring Lake’s Brown (49.80) and Mason’s Liam Boomer (50.48).

Cantrell won the 500 freestyle in 4:27.58, ahead of Cranbrook Kingswood’s Schwab (4:35.14) and Pontiac Notre Dame Prep’s Griffin Gushman (4:41.64).

Mason’s Williams, Tommy Hebert, Boomer and Cantrell won the 200 freestyle relay in 1:26.52, ahead of East Grand Rapids (1:26.89) and Grand Rapids Christian (1:27.13).

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) East Grand Rapids celebrates its team championship Saturday at Holland Aquatic Center. (Middle) Milan’s Andrew Dobrzanski won the breaststroke and 200 IM. (Below) Cranbrook’s Andrew Zhang looks up at the clock after a race. (Click for photos by Dan D’Addona.)

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)