Groves' MacDonald Caps Career with Individual Swim Sweep, Team Repeat

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

March 12, 2024

It can be amazing sometimes how winning can completely change an athlete’s mind.

Greater DetroitSuch was the case for Birmingham Groves senior swimmer Gus MacDonald when he was 13 years old. 

While swimming at an event for his club team, his coach decided “for fun” — according to MacDonald — to put him in a breaststroke event.

Never mind that MacDonald up to that point had mainly swum in the backstroke and wasn’t particularly good in the breaststroke. 

Then, something unforeseen happened.

“I ended up winning by a few seconds and dropping multiple seconds off of my time,” MacDonald said. 

And so MacDonald’s racing transformation began. 

Opponents probably wish they could go back in a time machine and prevent that coach from inserting MacDonald into that breaststroke race, because ever since MacDonald has established himself as one of the state’s best in the event regardless of division.

MacDonald successfully repeated as champion in the 100-yard breaststroke at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals on Saturday, claiming first place in a time of 54.88. 

“I find breaststroke more fun because it works on specific muscles and doesn’t wear me out as much in total,” MacDonald said. “My mom was also a breaststroker, so I think I’ve picked up some of the breaststroke genes from her.”

Oh, but MacDonald did even more. 

He also tried his hand this year in the 200 individual medley and won that event Saturday in a time of 1:46.51. 

Then, saving his best for last, MacDonald swam the anchor leg for Groves’ winning team in the 400 freestyle relay, which provided the most dramatic ending possible.

Thanks to a first-place finish in that event, Groves ended up repeating as team champion by one point ahead of rival Birmingham Seaholm.

If there was a more storybook ending to a high school career, it’s hard to imagine. 

Despite his victory in the IM, MacDonald likely will continue to swim breaststroke in college. He chose to swim for Notre Dame over Michigan and Wisconsin, and he said Notre Dame coaches already are envisioning him being a breaststroke specialist once he arrives in South Bend. 

In addition to being a leader in the pool for races, MacDonald and the rest of the Groves seniors took on the task of guiding the rest of the team through a coaching transition this winter. 

Nick Valice took over the program, and the transition was smooth from both the perspective of the new coach and the swimmers. 

“It’s been easy sailing,” Valice said. 

Valice said the hardest adjustment initially with MacDonald in particular was learning what training methods he prefers.

“I spent the first couple of weeks trying to figure out what he’s capable of running versus the caliber level of kids I’ve coached beforehand,” Valice said. “He is definitely able to do a little more. He responds to stuff a little differently, so it’s just been tweaking workouts that benefit him specifically as opposed to the whole team or your generic run-of-the-mill swimmer. I will say he will eat up any workout you throw at him.”

MacDonald certainly proved that with a terrific high school career, especially with the two breaststroke Finals titles. 

That’s pretty good for someone who didn’t know he liked the event until he was 13. 

“I was terrible at it,” MacDonald said. 

Not anymore. Not at all.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS Birmingham Groves’ Angus MacDonald stands for a photo after receiving his medal for winning the 100 breaststroke Saturday at Eastern Michigan University. (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.)