Holland Christian Shows D3 Dominance

March 10, 2018

By Chris Stevens
Special for Second Half

UNIVERSITY CENTER – After finishing second in the state twice during his coaching career, Holland Christian’s Todd Smeenge had the unmistakable look of a champion following Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 3 swimming & diving championships at Saginaw Valley State University.

Smeenge’s hair, his shirt and his shorts were all wet. Only championship coaches know that feeling.

Smeenge’s team, led by superb performances from seniors Skylar Cook-Weeks and Ian Miskelley, unseated four-time reigning champion Bloomfield Hills Cranbook Kingswood to capture the title. Holland Christian finished with 326.50 points, easily out-distancing East Grand Rapids which finished second with 240 points. Spring Lake was third with 201 points, while Cranbook was fourth at 197.

“It’s a great feeling,” Smeenge said. “Between Cranbrook and East Rapids, they’re the perennial favorites, so it’s a good feeling (to win the title.)”

It was the first time Holland Christian’s boys had won a Finals swim title since 1989. Smeenge has led the Maroons to a pair of runner-up finishes during his time as coach, in 1990 and 2011.

Cook-Weeks, meanwhile, was at his absolute best en route to winning two individual titles and being part of two first-place relay teams. Cook-Weeks finished his high school career with seven Finals titles.

And Saturday’s team finish topped it all off.

“It feels fantastic,” Cook-Weeks said moments after he and his teammates, along with their head coach, carried out the tradition of jumping into the pool to celebrate. “To go out my senior year by winning a state championship, you can’t ask for anything more than that. It just feels great to be able to do it with these guys. I’m going to miss being with them.”

Cook-Weeks won individual titles in the 200-yard freestyle and the 500 freestyle. His time of 1:37.27 in the 200 free set a new LP Division 3 Finals record. In the 500, he broke his own meet record with a time of 4:25.84.

“His work ethic in the pool is just outstanding,” Smeenge said. “It drives everybody else. That’s the thing that I will think of and remember the most about him.”

Cook-Weeks also was part of the winning 200 and 400 relay teams. His teammates on the 200 team were Miskelley, junior Brad Windemuller and junior Jacob Heeres; and on the 400 team were Heeres, junior Riley VanMeter and senior Luke Mason.

“We wanted to go into the meet by doing the best that we could, and we came out the way we wanted to be,” Cook-Weeks said of the mindset that he and his teammates had entering the meet as the top-ranked team.

The Maroons’ Miskelley also turned in a stellar performance. He won a pair of individual titles, capturing the 200 individual medley in a meet record time of 1:49.58. He also placed first in the 100 backstroke in a meet-record time of 49.05 seconds.

Mason was second in the 200 free and third in the 500.

“We obviously lose some big guns (to graduation) with Skylar, Ian and Luke,” Smeenge said. “But we’ve got a nice group of guys who are returning and who scored points for us. I don’t know if it’s going to be enough to win a state championship again, but we’re going to give it a shot.”

In other events, Christian Bart of East Grand Rapids won the 50 free in 20.31 seconds, breaking his previous meet record in the race. Nolan Briggs of Byron Center captured the 100 butterfly in 49.16 seconds, and Spring Lake’s Cam Peel placed first in the 100 free in a meet-record time of 44.97.

Bart also repeated in the 100 breaststroke in 56.07 seconds, just off his meet record time of 55.82 set last season.

St. Johns’ junior Cayden Petrak won the diving championship with 470.35 points, edging East Grand Rapids sophomore Nick Merritt by a mere 1.5.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Holland Christian hoists its LP Division 3 championship trophy Saturday. (Middle) Swimmers launch during the 400 freestyle relay. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)