Performance: West Ottawa's Derek Maas

January 19, 2018

Derek Maas
Holland West Ottawa junior – Swimming

The Panthers’ standout won the 100-yard backstroke (52.02 seconds), took second in the 200 individual medley (1:56.80) and swam on winning 200 medley and 400 freestyle relays Saturday as West Ottawa – then ranked No. 4 in Lower Peninsula Division 1 – defeated No. 1 Ann Arbor Skyline 104-79 and No. 3 Birmingham Brother Rice 111-72. The victories moved the Panthers into top spot in the rankings this week, as Maas earned the Michigan Army National Guard “Performance of the Week.”

Maas’ backstroke time from the weekend is the fastest in Michigan this winter, and his 1:56.08 at the East Grand Rapids Classic ranks sixth in the IM. He finished second in the backstroke and seventh in the IM at last season’s LPD1 Finals, with his times that day – 50.04 and 1:52.93 – his career bests at the high school level. He also owns the USA Swimming state age 15-16 record in the 200 breaststroke of 2:02.61, set as a member of the West Ottawa Swim Club at the USA Junior National Championships East in December.

The school records in both the backstroke (48.49) and IM (1:48.30) are held by Derek’s older brother Kyle, a 2016 West Ottawa graduate who finished LPD1 runner-up in both events as a senior and now swims at University of Alabama. Derek is considering joining his brother after high school among a number of potential southern college options, and also is a fan of University of Michigan athletics. Maas also played tennis as a freshman and sophomore and ran track as a freshman, and he might pick back up one or both of those sports after this swim season is complete. He carries a 3.94 unweighted grade-point average (4.49 weighted) and is considering studying medicine after high school; he lost his 4.0 when he got an A- in Algebra II – while taking the class as a fourth grader.

Coach Steven Bowyer said: “Derek has had a significant impact on the overall success of our program. Derek received all-state honors as a sophomore in the 200 IM and 100 back. In his junior year, he will play a significant role on our state meet relays, and his individual points will be key in helping our team achieve its goal of a top-4 state meet finish. … Derek's success has come from years of hard work and long hours in the pool. He understands both the amount and type of training that is required to excel at the highest level in this sport. He is also a student of the sport, spending time studying his stroke mechanics and researching ways to increase his efficiency. Derek's work ethic and technical understanding of the sport give him a combination of skills that make him tough to beat. … In pursuit of individual excellence, Derek has always placed team success over his own. Derek understands the better the team gets, the better he gets and vice versa. Our team is training at a very high level right now, in part to the example that Derek sets on a daily basis. Derek also sets an unprecedented example in the classroom; he defines the term student athlete. In addition to the hours he puts in at the pool, he maintains a rigorous schedule of advanced placement courses. We are very proud to have Derek representing our program.”

Performance Point: “I was happy about the 100 back time – it was my season best – and also our relays swam great,” Maas said. “A lot of us had the fastest splits, especially on that medley relay. We came pretty close to setting the pool record – we were like 0.06 (seconds) away, and that was a pretty good in-season time for us. … Our team was really excited for that meet, especially. That was a big confidence booster for us, and I think that everybody after that meet really realized that we have a chance to do really well at the state meet. So I hope that that will make us work even harder, and by the end of the season we’ll be able to accomplish our goals.”

Depth in the deep: “We just have a lot more depth than we had years in the past. A couple of years ago we had Tabahn (Afrik), and he won two events (at the 2014 and 2015 Finals), and then Spencer Carl did the last couple years. But besides just a couple top swimmers, they didn’t have the depth we do this year. This year we have a really solid group of 7-10 swimmers. We’ve all been excited, even starting at the end of last season and starting the summer season. We all were really excited for the state meet coming in March.”

Swim family: “Kyle’s at Alabama right now, and my sister (Jenna, a senior) is thinking about swimming in college. And I also have a younger brother (eighth-grader Kevin) who I think is going to be pretty fast. I think he’ll make a much bigger impact than I did my freshman year. … The best part is whenever I’m at a certain point in a season, I’ll know how I’m doing because I can compare it to my brother’s times. And also, whenever I talk to him about swimming, he always pushes me and gets me motivated. Even my younger brother and older sister do too. We all push each other. Last year I compared all of my times to Kyle’s, and I used to text him about that. He was like, ‘Let’s wait and see if you get my varsity records.’”

High flier: “My family really likes (U.S. world champion sprinter) Caeleb Dressel. I read in this one SwimSwam article that he had like a 42-inch vertical (leap), and that’s insane. You can see how that makes him way better on the walls, so that made me more focused on box jumps and dry land (training) and increasing my vertical leap than I had been in the past. I’ve worked on it a lot this year; I’m probably just average right now, but I’m trying to improve that. I can dunk, and Kyle can too.”

Paging Dr. Derek: “Both of my parents are doctors, and they’ve always told us we could be any kind of doctor we want, all four kids. Recently my dad has been opening up the options, but it’s most likely I’ll go pre-med, and that’s what Kyle is doing right now at Alabama. I haven’t looked into it a ton, but I know I’d like dermatology and maybe surgery.”

- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Every week during the 2017-18 school year, Second Half and the Michigan Army 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 responds 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 protect lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster. 

Previous 2017-18 honorees:
January 11: Lexi Niepoth, Bellaire basketball - Read
November 30: La'Darius Jefferson, Muskegon football - Read
November 23: Ashley Turak, Farmington Hills Harrison swimming - Read
November 16: Bryce Veasley, West Bloomfield football - Read 
November 9: Jose Penaloza, Holland soccer - Read
November 2: Karenna Duffey, Macomb L'Anse Creuse North cross country - Read
October 26: Anika Dy, Traverse City Central golf - Read
October 19: Andrew Zhang, Bloomfield Hills tennis - Read
October 12: Nolan Fugate, Grand Rapids Catholic Central football - Read
October 5: Marissa Ackerman, Munising tennis - Read
September 28: Minh Le, Portage Central soccer - Read
September 21: Olivia Theis, Lansing Catholic cross country - Read
September 14: Maddy Chinn, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep volleyball - Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Holland West Ottawa's Derek Maas competes during a meet this season. (Middle) Maas swims the butterfly. (Photos courtesy of the West Ottawa boys swimming & diving program.)

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.)