Peel, VanMeter Put On Show at Last Meet

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

March 9, 2019

ROCHESTER – Going into the 2019 Division 3 Boys Swimming & Diving Finals at Oakland University, both Spring Lake senior Cam Peel and Holland Christian senior Riley VanMeter had other numbers driving their respective quests to be No. 1. 

For Peel, it was a third-place finish at last year’s Finals meet in the 50-yard freestyle that weighed on his mind as he readied to start this year’s ultimate sprint race. 

But Peel avenged that memory by capturing his first 50 freestyle championship, in his last chance, in a time of 19.91 seconds. In Friday's prelim, he set the all-Finals record in the race at 19.86, becoming the first in Michigan to break 20 seconds in high school competition.

“I’ve always wanted to win the 50,” Peel said. “That’s one where the more mature guys win, so it’s super hard to win as a younger guy in the event. This was my year.”

Peel – who will go on to swim at University of Michigan – then completed the sweep of the sprint events by repeating as champion in the 100 yards in a time of 43.94, finishing as one of two individual standouts of the meet.

The other was VanMeter, who first won the 100 butterfly in a time of 48.07 – which wasn’t a surprise since he was the top seed going in.

But VanMeter also eyed a title in the 100 backstroke, an event he entered seeded second.

VanMeter surpassed that seeding with a terrific swim, winning the backstroke in a time of 48.95 to edge his club teammate, Joey Wachter of Spring Lake. 

VanMeter, who will swim at Alabama, was second in both events at last year’s Division 3 meet. 

“It’s just satisfying to be able to cap that on the end my high school swimming career,” VanMeter said. “It’s great to see where it’s been and where I’m going. I look back on all the amazing people I’ve swam against, and it’s a great way to end my high school swimming career.”

VanMeter was the main standout for Holland Christian, but he certainly wasn’t the only one, as the Maroons repeated as team champions with a meet-best 323.5 points. 

East Grand Rapids finished with 267 points to place runner-up for the fourth straight year, while Marshall was third with 198 points.

Spring Lake (197) and Hamilton (139) rounded out the top five. 

“We just had a really good Friday,” Holland Christian head coach Todd Smeenge said. “Prelims on Friday set you up for finals on Saturday. You can’t win a meet on Friday, but you certainly can lose it. I can’t say there was any magic trick, but we had some swims that were surprising even to me. I didn’t think they were going to swim that fast.”

Holland Christian and East Grand Rapids were tied atop the state rankings going into the meet, but the depth for the Maroons turned out to be the difference. 

Holland Christian’s team of Colin Kalkman, Brant Assink, VanMeter and Brad Windemuller won the 200 medley relay in a time of 1:35.81, while the Maroons had second-place finishes in the 200 freestyle (Levi VanAst) and 100 freestyle (Jacob Heeres). Diving and the breaststroke were the only events where Holland Christian didn’t have a top-five finisher.

“Last year, we had a team made up of top-end studs … that took a lot of first places,” Smeenge said. “We took several state records. This year, we were more about depth and having the guys in all the places.”

Other individual winners besides Peel and VanMeter were Spring Lake junior Kevin Losee in the 200 freestyle (1:39.76), Trenton sophomore Spencer Boling-Hamer in the 200 individual medley (1:55.73), St. Johns senior Cayden Petrak in the diving event (520.20), Mason sophomore Jonas Cantrell in the 500 freestyle (4:34.45) and Milan freshman Andrew Dobrzanski in the 100 breaststroke (58.53). 

Spring Lake’s team of Wachter, Sam Sella, Losee and Peel won the 200 freestyle relay in a time of 1:22.88, while Spring Lake’s team of Losee, Charles Brown, Wachter and Peel won the 400 freestyle relay in a time of 3:03.66. 

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Holland Christian athletes dive into the Oakland University pool Saturday to celebrate their Division 3 championship. (Middle) Spring Lake's Cam Peel, left, and Holland Christian's Jacob Heeres congratulate each other after their 400 relays finished first and second, respectively. (Click for more from

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.)