Finals Preview: Opportunities Abound

March 6, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

This could be a weekend of changes on the podium at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Swimming and Diving Finals. 

After four straight Saline championships, Birmingham Brother Rice is the favorite. Chelsea is ranked No. 1 in Division 3 and seeking its first championship in this sport. Even Division 2 favorite Birmingham Seaholm hasn't won in a couple of years.

See below for team favorites and top individuals to watch at all three meets. Preliminaries are Friday, with championship races and diving Saturday. All three Finals also will be streamed live with subscription on MHSAA.TV

Click for lineups and seed times for all three meets.

Division 1 at Saginaw Valley State University

Team contenders: Saline won the last four LP Division 1 team championships and set six individual records in the process with an incredible senior class that graduated in the spring. This meet is far more open for the first time in a while. Top-ranked Birmingham Brother Rice has 21 individuals and all three relays seeded to score (among the top 16) in their respective events with seniors Joe Krause Rodolfo Flores and juniors Gust Kouvaris and Mark Blinstrub expected to earn big points. Ann Arbor Pioneer, the last to win Division 1 (in 2009) before Saline and the second-ranked team, has eight individuals and all three relays seeded to score. Third-ranked Livonia Stevenson also should make a run with 10 individual seeds and three relays seeded among the top 16 in their events, including the division’s top distance swimmer (see below).

Tabahn Afrik, Holland West Ottawa junior – Enters this weekend with the top seed times in both the 100-yard freestyle (44.29) and 200 freestyle (1:38.08) after finishing second in both the 100 and 50 at last season’s Finals. Afrik’s seed time in the 100 is only one hundredth of a second from tying the LP Division 1 Finals record for the event.

Nick Arakelian, Livonia Stevenson senior – Holds the top seed times in the 200 individual medley (1:49.30) and 500 freestyle (4:37.40) after swimming the second-fastest IM time in LP Division 1 Finals history last season (1:48.22) and setting the LP Division 1 Finals record in the 500 in 4:27.75. He will need to swim a 1:47.85 to break the All-Finals record in the IM, and should give it a run.

Cameron Craig, Monroe sophomore – Brings into the Finals the fastest seed times in both the backstroke (49.17) and butterfly (49.32), and his backstroke time would best the LP Division 1 Finals record by more than half a second. He finished third in the butterfly and fourth in the backstroke at last season’s Finals.

John Schihl, Bloomfield Hills senior – Finished third in the 50 and second in the breaststroke and swam on two top-two relays at last season’s Division 3 Finals as part of Bloomfield Hills Lahser, which merged with Andover last summer and now swims in Division 1. He’s seeded third in the 100 freestyle and tops in the breaststroke with a time (55.71) that is only fourth tenths of a second off the LP Division 1 Finals record. His 200 medley relay also is seeded first.

Birmingham Brother Rice 400 freestyle relay – Krause, Kouvaris, Blinstrub and sophomore Bobby Powrie enter with a top seed time of 3:07.11 after Kouvaris, Patrick Nodland, Blinstrub and Krause set the all- Finals record in the race last year of 3:03.78.

Division 2 at Eastern Michigan University

Team contenders: Top-ranked Birmingham Seaholm is looking like a solid favorite to regain the Division 2 championship for the first time since 2011. The Maples have 18 individual qualifiers seeded 16th or higher in their respective events, plus the top-seeded team in all three relays and a strong diver. Dexter, the 2012 champion, is ranked No. 2 and enters with 11 qualifiers and three relays seeded to score, plus a top diver as well. Ann Arbor Skyline is ranked No. 3 but has to swim above its seeds in many events to challenge, while No. 4 Jenison has some stars but probably not enough to give Seaholm and Dexter a run.

Enrique Hernandez, Birmingham Seaholm junior – Should be a main point earner as the Maples go for the team title with the third-seeded time in the 200 freestyle (1:43.95) and the second in the 100 (47.16). He also swims on top-seeded 200 and 400 freestyle relays. He finished seventh in the 200 and eighth in 100 in 2013.

Clark Lindsay, Birmingham Groves senior – Finished second in the breaststroke and fifth in the 200 individual medley last season, and enters this weekend with the top breaststroke time by more than a second of 56.38 and fourth-best 200 IM seed time of 1:57.21.

Matt Orringer, Ann Arbor Skyline junior – Looking to improve on a fourth-place finish in the 200 IM and third place in the 500 freestyle at last season’s Finals. Orringer has the top seed time in the IM (1:54.29) and the second-fastest in the 500 (4:43.76) to reigning champion Thomas Rathbun of Holland (see below).

Thomas Rathbun, Holland senior – Led Holland to the team championship last season by winning a pair of individual titles, and returns with the fastest seed times in both of those races – 1:40.38 in the 200 freestyle and 4:34.57 in the 500 freestyle.

John Vann, Battle Creek Lakeview junior – Looking to defend his LP Division 2 championship in the 100 butterfly and enters with the fourth-best seed time in that race (51.82) and sixth-fastest in the 200 freestyle (1:46.23) while also swimming on all three of Lakeview’s qualifying relays.  

Will Walker, White Lake Lakeland senior – A versatile swimmer, Walker finished third in the 500 and fourth in the 200 freestyle in LP Division 1 last season. He enters this LP Division 2 Final with the top seed time in the 50 freestyle (21.15) and butterfly (50.40), the latter by more than a second.

Jason Wesseling, Jenison senior – Finished seventh in the 50 freestyle and third in the backstroke in 2013, but enters with the top seed time in the backstroke (50.56) by nearly two seconds and the third seed in the butterfly (51.72) plus as part of two top-three relays. His backstroke time might be in striking distance of Morgan Priestley’s LP Division 2 Finals record 50.04 set in 2008. 

Division 3 at Holland Aquatics Center

Team contenders: Chelsea finished fifth last season and is seeking its first MHSAA team championship, and is favored as the top-ranked team entering the Finals. The Bulldogs have 19 individual qualifiers and all three relays seeded to score among the top 16 this weekend. But they’ll have to fend off an impressive group including reigning champion East Grand Rapids, reigning runner-up Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood and 2012 champion St. Joseph. East Grand Rapids has 12 top-16 qualifiers, plus all three of its relays including the top-seeded 200 freestyle team.

David Alday, Chelsea senior – Keys the team favorite after winning championships in the 200 IM and 100 freestyle in 2013. Alday has the fifth seed time in the IM (1:59.07) and the sixth in the 100 (48.84), and swims on all three relays which all are seeded among the top five. 

Ben Carter, St. Joseph junior – The LP Division 3 champion in the 50 and 100 freestyles as a freshman in 2012, Carter has the top time of 21.17 in the 50 could threaten that race record. He also has the top seed time in the 100 (47.78).

Parker Cook-Weeks, Holland Christian senior – Another double champion from 2013, Cook-Weeks won titles in the 200 and 500 freestyles last season and also won the 500 as a sophomore. Not surprisingly, he has the top seed times in the 200 (1:39.26) and 500 (4:38.64). 

Oliver Smith, Milan senior – Set that 50 freestyle record time in winning last season in 20.92, and enters that race right behind Carter with a seed time of 21.52. He’s also seeded fourth in the 100 freestyle at 48.28 and swims on three relays.

Henry Swett, Marshall junior – The reigning champion is seeking his third straight title and won his third Regional championship last week. He scored 435.65 in winning his first Finals championship and 431.20 in 2013.

PHOTO: Swimmers leave the blocks during a race at last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals.

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.)