Groves Rallies from 1st-Event DQ to Win Final Race, Repeat Finals Title

By Tim Robinson
Special for

March 9, 2024

YPSILANTI —  Repeating as a Finals champion is never easy. 

But the Birmingham Groves boys swim & dive team took it to a new level Saturday.

The Falcons, who won the Lower Peninsula Division 2 title by seven points last year, endured a disqualification in the 200 medley relay this time but battled back to win by a point after finishing first in the final event of the day, the 400-yard freestyle relay.

“I think it might have been the most up-and-down day of my life,” Groves first-year coach Nick Valise said. “I’ve never been in this position before. I still don’t believe it.”

Groves trailed until the final event but finished with 245 points, one point better than Seaholm and Farmington, which tied for second. 

Groves did get a key break when crosstown rival Birmingham Seaholm also had a DQ, in the 200 free relay. But the key to the Falcons’ comeback was its resilience.

Seaholm’s Elliot Rijnovean, bottom, holds off Ann Arbor Skyline’s Lucas Caswell to win the butterfly. Joey Stebbins, one of the team’s senior leaders, set the tone after being responsible for the false start that led to the disqualification.

‘Honestly, I just had to shake it off,’ he said. “I knew I messed up as soon as I got in (the pool). I knew I DQ'd it. I'm like, I'd own up to it (and) shake it off.”

“I must say, I’ve never met a group of boys who handled something like that so well,” Valise noted. “I mean, right after the DQ, heads picked right up, (they) put their foot down, kept fighting. Gave us a chance at the end of the meet.”

Groves, Farmington and Seaholm were ranked in that order at the top of LPD3 entering the meet.

Seaholm won four events, including the 200 medley relay. Sophomore Elliot Rijnovean, who was on that relay, also won the butterfly and backstroke, while freshman Quinn O’Neill won the 500 freestyle.

Senior Gus MacDonald won the breaststroke and individual medley for Groves and swam on the winning 400 free relay.

“I knew it'd be close,’ he said. “I knew we had to win that final relay to win the meet. I didn't know the logistics of it. But finally hearing that we won was the best feeling in the world.”

Groves’ Gus MacDonald swims to the victory in the individual medley.Saturday’s meet was a standout chapter in the long crosstown rivalry.

“I go to class there once a day,” Stebbins said. “It's really, really good to go against them. It always pushes you up. It’s a friendly rivalry. Love those guys down the road.”

It was certainly a day to remember.

“A little surreal, actually,” Valise said. “But I got gifted a group of an amazing 25 boys that could not have worked harder and been more focused on the goal.”

Also winning championships Saturday were Grand Rapids Northview senior Caleb Howe in the 200 and 100 freestyles, Grosse Pointe South senior Troy Liu in the 50 free and Jenison senior Robby Russo in diving. Farmington won the 200 freestyle relay.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Birmingham Groves senior Zach Lezovich races for the eventual team champion; he scored points in three events Saturday. (Middle) Seaholm’s Elliot Rijnovean, bottom, holds off Ann Arbor Skyline’s Lucas Caswell to win the butterfly. (Below) Groves’ Gus MacDonald swims to the victory in the individual medley. (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.)