Losses Can't Stop Pioneer from Winning 3rd-Straight Finals Championship

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

March 11, 2023

GRAND RAPIDS – Gabriel Sanchez-Burks didn't see the sense in wallowing over the past.

Instead, the Ann Arbor Pioneer senior swimmer considered it smarter to focus this season on what his team could still accomplish despite huge graduation losses from the program's last two Lower Peninsula Division 1 swimming & diving champions.

That's how Sanchez-Burks explains the Pioneers winning their third-straight Finals title Saturday at Calvin University.

"We lost a lot of good kids, but we stepped up," said Sanchez-Burks, named the Swimmer of the Meet by the Michigan Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association after winning two events while helping two relays to titles. "We encouraged the young guys to step up, and they did. It was definitely my most memorable moment; we had so many great successes."

Rockford’s Julian Cardenas completes one of his dives on the way to winning his event. Pioneer topped off its season by scoring 288 points to outdistance runner-up Holland West Ottawa's 177 points. Brighton was third at 156, Novi was fourth with 155 and Zeeland fifth at 147.

This championship came after Pioneer, which had only 10 swimmers on the roster, returned only three key contributors from last year's title-winning team. The team had 18 swimmers on the 2022 champion and 14 on the 2021 title winner. The four seniors on this year's team – Sanchez-Burks, Alec Lipham, Justin Su and Young Yun – never lost a dual, conference or Finals meet over the last three years.

"Every team is different; it's like your children. They have their own makeup, their own personality, their own way of doing things. It's just so rewarding," Pioneer coach Stef Kerska said. "When you're working with 14 or 15-year-old boys, you just try to get them to focus. It takes a special group."

Sanchez-Burks won the 50-yard freestyle (20.19) and the 100 free (45.25) while also helping the 200 free relay (1:33.73) and 200 medley relay (1:25.92) to first places. Pioneer won the meet's first race, the 200 free relay, and never trailed in the meet. Pioneer also won the 400 relay (3:07.96).

"They realize how special our environment and culture is," Kerska said of three-peating. "We remind them to enjoy every day, every practice, every conference meet, every state meet. I feel like they've learned that."

Rockford's Julian Cardenas was named diver of the meet after winning that event with a 474.35. After finishing  second last year as a sophomore, he wound up unbeaten this season. He said the difference between finishing runner-up and winning a state title is miniscule.

"It's a fine-tuning. You (can lose) on the smallest of mistakes. It can be your mechanics, your style, where your hands are. I just try to stay relaxed," he said. “It’s all about repetition and doing things over and over again."

Zeeland’s Owen Stephens swims to a championship Saturday in the 200 individual medley. Zeeland's Owen Stevens was a double winner, taking the 200 individual medley (1:50.76) and 500 free (4:30.81). The sophomore, who was sixth in the 200 individual medley and fourth in the 500 a year ago, said considering the workload he's put in the last two years, he had hopes of winning a pair of events.

"Your goal is always to win," he said. "When the (seeds) sheet came out, I was seeded well. I've improved every day, put in the work. I worked on all four strokes, and it paid off. You just have to swim your own race and not focus on anyone else."

The other champions included Ryan Gurgel of Canton, who captured the 200 free (1:39.66) and 100 butterfly (49.00). He qualified for the Finals as a freshman and sophomore and was second in the 200 free a year ago.

"It was a goal of mine after coming up short last year," he said of winning a pair of titles. "Expectations can put a lot of pressure on yourself, but you have to live up to them. I think I swam well. I was proud of myself."

Olin Charnstrom of Oxford won the 100 backstroke (49.04), and Brighton's Luke Newcomb won the 100 breaststroke (55.34).

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Ann Arbor Pioneer's Christopher Leuciuc and Detroit Catholic Central's Roshi Turner race in the 200 IM. (Middle) Rockford’s Julian Cardenas completes one of his dives on the way to winning his event. (Below) Zeeland’s Owen Stephens swims to a championship Saturday in the 200 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 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.)