Pioneer Meets Lofty Expectations with Another Trophy Finish

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

March 12, 2022

HOLLAND – Nothing gets the attention of Ann Arbor Pioneer’s swimmers quicker than a glance up at the state championship banners in their home facility.

The piercing whistle of Pioneers coach Stefanie Kerska might be a close second, however.

Pioneer’s boys swimming & diving team made some more noise this weekend at Holland Aquatic Center, capped by another championship in runaway fashion at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals on Saturday.

On the strength of their depth and relays, the Pioneers amassed 365 points. Northville was runner-up with 267 points, followed by Holland West Ottawa in third (195), Saline fourth (187.50) and Macomb Dakota fifth (157).

It was the second-straight boys Finals title for Pioneer and Kerska. The Pioneers’ girls team, also coached by Kerska, captured a second consecutive championship in November at the Holland facility.

“They walk in every day to a facility that has multiple, multiple, dozens of banners on the wall and they know. We have alumni come back to speak about the program and what it means. There is a lot of pressure – people don’t realize that,” Kerska said about her boys team.

“There is a daily pressure on these guys to not only be the best here, but to live up to what’s come before them. I know I feel it, walking into my office every day. I’ve got a picture of Liz and Denny Hill on my desk, and I just try to be what they were.”

Under the Hills, Pioneer captured 15 Division 1 or Class A Finals titles in boys swimming and 16 more on the girls’ side. Kerska and the Pioneers certainly have kept that championship tradition afloat with four more titles between the boys and girls teams the last two years.

Kerska also learned from Denny Hill, her mentor, how handy the shrieking whistle across a noisy natatorium can be. When she does it, the Pioneers tend to stop in their tracks on the pool deck. They can hear her in the pool, too, and take their cues.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time. Actually, Denny Hill tried to teach me how to do it without my fingers, which is probably the better way, especially with COVID, to do it,” Kerska said with a smile. “I’ve been doing it for years and years and years. Although, I think I do have the same shrillness and tone that he did, so I’m trying to follow in his footsteps.

“We kind of do, like, the Von Trapps: Wherever they are on the pool deck, when they hear my whistle, they look. It comes in very handy with 17 boys.”

Kerska’s boys answered the call. Seniors Ryan Hume and Jack Wilkening led the way for Pioneer.

Hume repeated in the 200-yard individual medley (1:49.44) and he also won the 500 freestyle (4:26.65) after finishing runner-up in the latter event last year. Wilkening captured first place in the 100 free (45.06) and swam a leg on the victorious 200 medley relay (1:31.91) along with seniors Robert Yang and Alex Farmer plus junior Gabriel Sanchez-Burks.

Hume and Wilkening also joined Yang and senior Harrison Sanders on the Pioneers’ winning 400 free relay (3:03.99), which closed the Finals meet with an exclamation point. 

Pioneer senior Teodor Jaworski captured the title in the 200 free (1:39.45), and he took second in the 500 free behind teammate Hume. Wilkening also placed second in the 100 backstroke.

Ann Arbor Pioneer swimming“It’s all about the team. I had to have (a strong) relay for the team and I was performing for the team at that point,” said Wilkening, who signed to swim at University of Michigan.

As a member of back-to-back state title teams, Wilkening said this one was a little more special, mostly because things were a lot closer to “normal” in comparison to 2021.

Last season was shortened amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last year was a crazy year for swimming in particular, men’s swimming, just because of how shortened our season was, how different everything was – the training, too,” Wilkening said. 

“We really got to become a team again, I think. That’s what really set this one apart. We actually got to bond as one, be as one in total, more than last year.”

As Wilkening put it, being surrounded by the “greatness” of high-achieving coaches and peers has driven him and his teammates to achieve at this high level.

Sanchez-Burks can vouch for that. He is not a year-round swimmer like many others in the Pioneer program, as he also focuses his attention to water polo – but he played a key role for his team.

Sanchez-Burks was especially pleased by his runner-up finish in the 50 free, which established a school record with a time of 20.60.

“It’s been a struggle for me to keep up with everybody,” Sanchez-Burks said. “In practice, I always try to push myself to stay with all the year-round swimmers and I always try to push myself to stay with all the people I’m competing against today. It’s a lot of fun.

“All the relays, I think that’s where we strive because we have such a diverse team – we spread out so many good swimmers.”

Other first-place finishes belonged to West Ottawa senior Kevin Maas in the 50 free (20.58), Saline senior Joshua Brunty in the 100 breaststroke (55.85), Rochester senior Jack VanHowe in the 100 backstroke (48.13), Canton junior Ryan Gurgel in the 100 butterfly (49.34), Waterford Mott junior Alex Poulin in 1-meter diving (456.70), and Northville’s 200 free relay team (1:23.88) of Evan Scotto-DiVetta, Kyle McCullough, Nate Obrigkeit and Leonardo Simoncini.

Maas, who also is taking his swimming talents to U-M, was a back-to-back winner in the 50 free. Last year, he swam on the winning 200 free relay and tied for second in the 100 free.

On Saturday, VanHowe repeated in the backstroke.

“It was super emotional and super electric in so many ways,” Maas said about his performance Saturday in a venue that’s very familiar to him. “I never knew I could be so happy and so energetic after dropping only 0.02 (in the 50 free), but just to get the ‘W’ for the team and repeat for my team and my family, it meant a lot to me and I was emotional.

“That was the happiest I’ve ever been, and it felt so good.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Robert Yang swims the third leg of the winning 200 medley relay for Ann Arbor Pioneer. (Middle) Pioneer’s Teodor Jaworski pulls to the front on the way to winning the 200 freestyle. (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.)