Performance: Dexter's Rob Zofchak

January 13, 2016

Rob Zofchak
Dexter senior – Swimming

Zofchak entered this season poised for a strong finish to his high school career coming off his first MHSAA championship and a Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals record in the 100-yard backstroke (49.72 seconds) last winter. He’s on pace to equal that success – and accomplish much more. Zofchak was one of two multiple winners at Saturday’s Spartan Invitational at Battle Creek Lakeview, besting a field that included most of the top-ranked teams in Lower Peninsula Division 2 to earn this week’s Michigan National Guard “Performance of the Week.”

Zofchak won the 200-yard freestyle in 1:42.07, more than five seconds faster than the runner-up, and his winning backstroke time of 51.44 was more than a second faster than the rest. He also swam on the winning 400 freestyle relay (3:13.36) and fifth-place 200 medley relay (1:40.39). Top-ranked Dexter as a team finished first overall, in front of No. 4 Warren DeLaSalle and also ahead of No. 5 Lakeview, reigning champion and No. 2 Birmingham Seaholm, No. 3 Birmingham Groves, No. 8 Grosse Pointe South, No. 10 Portage Northern and Division 1 No. 2 Ann Arbor Skyline.

The two-time team Most Valuable Performer holds three individual and a relay school record, and last season was part of 17 pool record swims at pools throughout Michigan. He’s also earned All-America honors five times from the national coaches association and has signed to continue his swimming career on scholarship at the University of Michigan. Zofchak is a member of the National Honor Society, and last summer he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100 and 200 backstrokes with times of 56.94 and 2:02.56, respectively. 

Coach Michael McHugh said: “Rob is a gifted swimmer, but without the hard work and dedication he has shown throughout his career none of the accomplishments would have been possible. He puts himself in a position to succeed each day and motivates his teammates to raise their effort level to match. He is such a versatile swimmer that I can put in almost anywhere in the lineup and know he will come through for the team. As a captain for us this year he has shown great leadership and a willingness to go the extra distance for his teammates. His teammates look to him in big moments, and he is always ready to give it everything he has in order to get the job done.”

Performance Point: “I think (Spartan) went pretty well. Obviously, there’s a lot that I still need to improve – and there always will be. But it really sets us up with most of the other teams. The meet had most of the top five or six teams in Division 2 there. … We’d never actually gotten a trophy at that meet.”

Title time: Dexter won its last MHSAA team championship in boys swimming & diving in 2012; the Dreadnaughts finished fourth, second and third at the LP Division 2 Finals over Zofchak’s first three seasons. The Dexter girls, including his sophomore sister Sarah, won the LPD2 title this fall. “I know a lot of the guys are really looking at trying to get that title, especially with the girls winning it. It would be a great way to end my high school career, for sure. It would be a really great way to end it after all we’ve been through.”

Family ties: In addition to Zofchak’s younger sister, his older brother Jonathan was a Dexter standout and swims at Michigan State. “I try to teach my sister as much as I can, which is not much. I like to help her as much as I can. With Jonathan, I always try to go after him. I always want to beat my big brother.”

Chasing Clay: “Certainly, there are times and names out there that you always want to measure yourself up to, come close to those times. Clay Youngquist’s times (for Battle Creek Lakeview) in everything; I look at those and aspire for those. His 200 free (1:34.28 in 2011) in pretty absurd, probably untouchable. But I’d like to swim at the end of the year and at least be close.”

Hailing U-M: “I really admire the program there. I really admire the coaches, and I like what they have going on. On top of being one of the best swim schools in the nation, it’s a top academic school as well. Especially with it being 15 minutes from my house, it was one of my greatest choices. I’ll try for med(ical) school. My uncle is a doctor, and I want to help solve issues with people, help make people better.”

– Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Every week during the 2015-16 school year, Second Half and the Michigan National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.

The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and respond as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our Nation's freedom, or protecting lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster.

Previous 2015-16 honorees
Jan. 6: Tyler Deming, Caro wrestling – Read
Dec. 15: Jordan Weber, East Jordan boys basketball – Read
Dec. 8: Kaitlyn Geers, Kent City girls basketball – Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Rob Zofchak was a two-time champion at the Spartan Invitational, winning the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke. (Middle) The backstroke is Zofchak's favorite stroke, and he is the reigning Lower Peninsula Division 2 champion in the event. (Action photos by Doni Houghtaling; head shot by Tammy Lynne 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.)