Marquette Dominates to Run Streak to 3

February 20, 2016

By Keith Shelton
Special for Second Half

MARQUETTE – Overwhelming favorites to begin the day, the Marquette Redmen might have surpassed even their own lofty expectations Saturday at the MHSAA Upper Peninsula Swimming and Diving Finals in their home pool.

Marquette dominated to the point that they rendered the day a competition for second place, winning their third straight U.P. title with 326 points, followed by Houghton with 208 and Sault Ste. Marie with 205. 

"We knew if they didn't disqualify in starts or turns, that they would dominate," Marquette coach Nate McFarren said. "We expected a lot from them this year, and they really tore it up today. It was pretty cool."

Senior Sam Williams had a day that any senior would love in his final sporting event. Williams broke three Upper Peninsula Finals records while capturing firsts in the 200-yard individual medley (1:57.11), 100 breaststroke (58.02) and as part of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams. His 200 IM time was nearly three seconds faster than the previous record, and his 100 breaststroke time was a full two seconds faster than the previous best in that event and six seconds ahead of his closest competitor. Williams also set the U.P. Finals record for the 100 freestyle while swimming on the 400 freestyle relay, with a time of 48.39. 

Of the breaststroke, an event that proves difficult for many swimmers, Williams said, "The thing a lot of people don't understand is the breaststroke is not as much about power and speed. It's about decreasing the resistance. If you can get a good body line on every stroke, you're going to be better off than most people."

Williams began swimming competitively at age 10 and had a goal even then to win a U.P. title at the high school level before going on to swim in college. According to McFarren, the second part of Williams' goal is likely to be realized as well. 

"Sam was quite a bit ahead of his closest competitor today, so we focused on him getting used to swimming by himself and visualizing his race with someone swimming next to him," McFarren said. "He's a very bright individual outside of swimming. He's number one in his class. To be with him for four years and watching him grow from a freshman to a senior, it's been my honor."

Marquette also had a standout in junior Andrew Kilpela, who earned a first as part of the 200 medley relay and was second in the 100 backstroke, arguably the best event of the day. 

Gladstone junior Matthew LeClaire had an outstanding performance, highlighted by his victory in the 100 backstroke (54.33), which broke the previous U.P. Finals record of 54.91. Kilpela also broke the U.P. record with his time of 54.72. Throughout the race the two rivals pulled a hair ahead of one another, and the final 25 yards were neck and neck. 

"Matt works very hard, and when he comes to this meet and swims against Andrew, that just seems to fire him up," said Gladstone coach Tom Desy. "That was about as close of a race as you can get. It was back and forth, definitely the race of the meet."

LeClaire, who will continue his rivalry with Kilpela next year, said he was battling his own thoughts prior to the race. 

"It was tense getting ready for the race," LeClaire said. "The kid from Marquette was seeded ahead of me, and it was in my head. I was thinking oh man, I don't want to lose this; I can't lose this. I tried to hold it down and keep going."

LeClaire also won the 100 freestyle (50.64), which Williams did not race, and was part of the Braves' 200 medley relay team, which placed second. 

Marquette's depth, however, was so pronounced that most of the other schools were simply seeing red for most of the day. The Redmen even had a 1-2 finish in the 200 IM, with Matt Kurin finishing second to Williams. Ben Luke won the 100 butterfly (57.77), Matthew Nykanen placed third in the 100 breaststroke and 100 freestyle, and Ryan Glover was third in the 100 backstroke. The Redmen also won all three relays.

"We're lucky to have some serious depth on the boys team," said McFarren. "Some finished second or third to their own teammates. Being able to put together three relays that win isn't always heard of. 

"I was really nervous about our relays today because I spread our talent out," added McFarren. "I wanted to go after it in all three relays, and I probably couldn't have done it without the help of Andrew and Sam. Having Sam lead off two relays and lead us to victory, and break that individual record in a relay, is pretty cool."

Marquette will lose Williams to graduation, but with its superior depth, will be in good position to go for a fourth straight title next season. 

"Sam will be a huge loss, but we're only losing two seniors, and we had a really talented team this year, outside of Sam," McFarren said. 

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) A swimmer leads the butterfly during Saturday's Upper Peninsula Finals at Marquette. (Middle) Swimmers launch for another race. (Click for more from Jarvinen Photography.)

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.)