Marquette Regains UP Boys Title

By John Vrancic
Special for

February 15, 2014

MARQUETTE — It was a great Saturday to be a Marquette swimmer as the Redmen swimming and diving team earned its first Upper Peninsula title in four years with 331 points at its home pool. 

The Redmen were followed by defending champ Sault Ste. Marie with 306 points and Kingsford with 181.

Marquette topped the standings in all 11 swimming events after Sault Ste. Marie grabbed the top three spots in Friday’s diving competition. 

“We knew Sault Ste. Marie would be real good in diving,” Marquette coach Nate McFerrin said. “This is a pretty awesome moment. We wanted all the kids (boys and girls) on the podium (for post-meet photos) because as an adult you don’t get many moments like this.”

A trio of Marquette swimmers had a hand in four firsts, including senior Tony Lackey, junior Nate Rotundo and sophomore Sam Williams. 

Lackey won the 50-yard freestyle race in 23.65 seconds, 100 freestyle (53.66) and helped the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays to victories

Rotundo, helping the 200 and 400 freestyle relays to firsts, also won the 100 backstroke (1:03.00) and 200 individual medley (2:07.82). 

“They (Sault) got far ahead of us in diving, but we have some real good swimmers,” Rotundo said. “I’m pretty proud of this team. We really wanted this meet because we hadn’t won it since 2010. Our medley relay was just .3 second off the school record (1:44.74), which is pretty impressive. The school record is our goal for next year. We came in here knowing we had to do our best."

Williams captured 100 butterfly (56.03) and 500 freestyle (5:10.67) and helped the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays as well.

“I had been training real hard, but tapered off this week,” said Williams, who swam personal bests in both of his individual races. “We were behind (Sault) going into the 500 freestyle. Also, I wasn’t the top seed in butterfly, which really motivated me. I really wanted to come through for our team.” 

Freshman Ben Luke also helped the 200 freestyle relay to victory, which gave the Redmen their first lead (236-233), and Luke also placed third in 100 backstroke (1:06.61) and fourth in 200 IM (2:26.18).

“I’ve been swimming for eight years and this is the best meet I’ve had in my life,” Luke said. “I’m happy with all my races and my teammates’ races. I really wanted to swim today and dropped four seconds from my previous best (in the 200 IM). 

“In my opinion, the breaststroke is the most challenging because it takes a lot of technique and skill. But Nate (Rotundo) has mastered that.”

Sault junior Levi Furr topped the standings in diving with 186.65 points, followed by junior Kyle Flickinger (179.9) and sophomore Eric Finley (172.95). 

“Diving has been one of our strongest events all year,” Sault coach Denise Mayer said. “That fired our kids coming into today’s swimming events.

“Marquette has very strong swimmers. Nate (coach McFerrin) and his staff should be very proud of them. I’m proud of all our kids, too. There wasn’t a kid on this team that didn’t swim a personal best.” 

Not only was McFerrin proud of what the Redmen accomplish, he was impressed with Williams’ performance in the 500.

“Sam dropped 10 seconds in the 500, which is nearly unheard off for a swimmer of his caliber,” said McFerrin, who completed his third year as head coach. “I’m finally getting the feeling this team is becoming ours. I’ve come a long way in learning how to prepare a team for this meet. We’ve been there, done that. We can do it again.” 

Also winning individual races for Marquette were junior Collin McCommons in 200 freestyle (1:56.98) and freshman Andrew Kilpela in 100 backstroke (1:00.24).

Click for full results.

PHOTOS w: (Top) Marquette sophomore Sam Williams finishes off a 100-yard butterfly championship Saturday at the UP Swimming and Diving Finals. (Middle) Teammate Tony Lackey celebrates his 100 freestyle championship. (Photos courtesy of Jarvinen Photos.)

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.)