Pioneers Make Every Second Count in D3

March 9, 2013

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

YPSILANTI – Rarely has a fifth-place finish meant more than it did Saturday afternoon to East Grand Rapids at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals at Michael H. Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University.

East Grand Rapids went into the final event – the 400 freestyle relay – needing to finish fifth to guarantee the overall meet championship. A sixth-place finish paired with a first place by Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood would have left East Grand Rapids in second place.

Incredibly, Cranbrook-Kingswood tied Bloomfield Hills Lahser for first place in the final relay, and East Grand Rapids got the fifth-place finish it needed to win the Final championship by four points (278-274). It was the 10th championship for East Grand Rapids, which won the Division 3 title in 2008 and 2010 and won the Class B-C-D title every year from 1976-82.

“This is cool. Very cool,” said East Grand Rapids coach Butch Briggs, who has coached the Pioneers to all 10 MHSAA championships. “We had to hold fifth place (in the 400 freestyle relay), and they did a great job.

“They haven’t quit all year. We won our conference meet by a half-point, so these kids have been tough all year long.”

For a while, it looked like Cranbrook- Kingswood would not pull off first place in the 400 freestyle relay. The Cranes were third for the majority of the race before Matthew Liu finished the final 100 yards in stirring fashion. Earlier, Liu had won the 100 butterfly in 51.60 seconds.

Cranbrook-Kingswood came into the 400 freestyle with just the sixth-fastest prelim time of the eight finalists, but sliced 3.47 seconds off that time, finishing in 3 minutes, 12.99 seconds.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Cranbrook-Kingswood coach Karl Hodgson said. “They all dropped about the same amount of time across the board. It was a total team effort.

“We knew we had an outside shot. We were like a 3:21 coming in, and we end up going 3:12. That’s crazy fast for us.”

East Grand Rapids, meanwhile, was seventh after the first 50 yards and stayed between fourth and sixth after that. The Pioneers were fifth when Kurt Swieter dove into the water for the final 100 yards. He knew what he had to do.

“That last relay, we knew if Cranbrook was to get first, we couldn’t fall back, so I just went into that relay with the mindset that we were going to win,” said Swieter, a junior who was joined on the relay team by sophomore Jack Filion and freshmen Nathan Hein and Andy MacGregor. “I knew that we were fifth, and I knew that Cranbrook was moving. I saw them swimming in before I dove, and I wasn’t going to let it go.”

East Grand Rapids senior Matt Hooper had just successfully defended his individual MHSAA championship in the 100 breaststroke when the 400 freestyle relay was held, and all he could do was watch the drama unfold.

“Our guys were super stoked,” Hooper said. “We had two freshmen on that relay, and to see them step up like that was awesome. I believed in them from the start. We have a really fast freshman class, and they really got it done. We couldn’t have done it without them for sure.

“Our butterflier really stepped up big, and our backstroker was a full second faster than (Friday). We all had to get together and do it as a team, and that was the big thing, the team. Everyone showed up, and everyone performed well.”

Hooper certainly showed up and performed well. He helped the Pioneers win the first event – the 200 medley relay – and then not only defended his title in the breaststroke but broke the LP Division 3 meet record for the second day in a row after breaking it on Friday. Hooper’s winning time was 56.12 seconds.

“It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “I was telling my coach I think this meet was truly one of the only times I can say my heart was beating out of my chest before a race. I couldn’t swallow before the race.”

In the 200 medley relay, Hooper swam the breaststroke as East Grand Rapids won in 1:35.58 – breaking the school record set by the Pioneers two years ago with Hooper as a member of the relay.

Hooper’s day ended with a team championship, an individual championship complete with a meet record, and a relay championship, also complete with another meet record.

“It’s a really big honor to be on a team with these guys and to help out Coach Briggs get one more state championship before I’m done,” Hooper said. “It’s a heck of a way to go out. I couldn’t have asked for a better season or a better four years.”

There were several other outstanding efforts in addition to Hooper and East Grand Rapids. Parker Cook-Weeks of Holland Christian repeated as champion in the 500 freestyle in 4:38.27 and also won the 200 freestyle in 1:41.21. David Alday of Chelsea won the 100 freestyle in 46.85 and the 200 individual medley in 1:52.88, narrowly missing the LP Division 3 meet record of 1:52.80.

Alday won both of his races in come-from-behind fashion as he passed the leader in the final 25 yards.

“That’s how I like to do it,” Alday said, “lay back and see what I can do late in the race. In the last 25 (of the individual medley) I didn’t breathe once. I just stuck my head down.”

The victory in the individual medley was especially gratifying to Alday, who was limited last year after breaking his back when, as he put it, “I had a large kid jump on me.” Alday was limited to just freestyle events at last year’s MHSAA Final.

Cook-Weeks had a different challenge in winning his MHSAA titles. In both races, he had to battle his good friend Swieter, who swam the final leg of the 400 freestyle for East Grand Rapids. Cook-Weeks beat him by nearly a second in the 200 freestyle, and then the two had a virtual match race in the 500 freestyle as they finished within 1.35 seconds of each other but nearly five seconds ahead of the third-place finisher.

“Kurt and I are longtime friends, and we always have a battle and stay with each other,” Cook-Weeks said. “Kurt’s a great swimmer, no doubt about that, and we stuck together and fought it out. It was an iron man race.

“We just battled, and the last 50 I tried kicking it in because I just knew that I could do more. I wanted to make my parents, my family and my coaches proud and show that I can defend my title in the 500.”

Ollie Smith of Milan won the 50 freestyle in 21.04, and freshman Joey Puglessi of Grand Rapids Catholic Central took the 100 backstroke in 52.75. Detroit Country Day won the 200 freestyle relay in 1:26.61.

In 1-meter diving, Marshall sophomore Henry Swett outdistanced his nearest competitor by more than 20 points as he repeated as champion. Swett, who said he has trained on the trampoline with his brothers, said becoming a four-time MHSAA champion is one of his goals – but it comes with a price as he seemingly is the favorite whenever he competes.

“It puts more pressure on me, but I kind of like it that way,” said Swett, whose total of 431.20 fell just short of his winning total of 435.65 a year ago.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) East Grand Rapids' Matt Hooper swims to his third straight MHSAA championship in the 100-yard breaststroke Saturday. (Middle) The Pioneers celebrate their first team title since 2010. (Click to see more at

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.)