Preview: Finals Opportunities Abound for Swim & Dive Contenders

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 9, 2023

Even with two returning team champions expected to reign again, it’s fair to say there are abundant opportunities for first-time winners to climb the podiums at this weekend’s Lower Peninsula Boys Swimming & Diving Finals.

Ann Arbor Pioneer and East Grand Rapids are pursuing third-straight team titles in Divisions 1 and 3, respectively. But the top-three ranked contenders in Division 2 either haven’t won a Finals or haven’t won in over a decade. And of 27 individual events across the three meets, only six will welcome back last year’s winners as the great majority graduated last spring.

Preliminaries at all three Finals sites begin at noon Friday, with Saturday championship events starting at noon as well. Both days of all three meets will be streamed live and viewable with subscription on For information on purchasing tickets, plus psych sheets, dive orders and more, visit the Boys Swimming & Diving page – and see below for a glance at team and individual contenders to follow.

Lower Peninsula Division 1 at Calvin University

Reigning champion: Ann Arbor Pioneer
2022 runner-up: Northville
2023 top-ranked: 1. Ann Arbor Pioneer, 2. Northville, 3. Detroit Catholic Central

Pioneer has won the last two LPD1 championships, last year by 98 points with a total of 365. With 18 entries seeded to score and five top seeds – including all three relays – the Pioneers certainly are favorites to extend that streak. Northville’s runner-up finish last season was its highest at a Finals since winning its lone title in 1973, and the Mustangs have 13 entries seeded to score. Detroit Catholic Central placed eighth last season and is seeking its first championship, and has an intriguing mix with nine entries seeded to score including a top seed, plus two divers.

Olin Charnstrom, Oxford junior: After finishing 13th in the 100-yard backstroke and just missing the final heats in the 50-yard in 2022, he has an opportunity for a big move as the backstroke top seed (49.44 seconds) by a second and the third seed in the 100-yard freestyle (46.54).

Ryan Gurgel, Canton senior: Last season’s champion in the 100-yard butterfly and runner-up in the 200-yard freestyle is the first seed in both races this weekend in 50.64 and 1:42.16, respectively.

Luke Mychalowych, Detroit Catholic Central junior: He finished fourth in the 100-yard breaststroke and just missed the final heats in the 100 free last winter, but enters this weekend top-seeded in the breaststroke (57.25), eighth-seeded in the 200-yard freestyle and a possibility to swim on two top-four seeded relays.

Gabriel Sanchez-Burks, Ann Arbor Pioneer senior: After a big jump last season that saw him finish second in the 50, seventh in the 100 free and as part of championship and runner-up relays, he’s lined up for an even bigger finish to his high school career. He has top seeds in the 50 (20.25) and 100 (45.31) and is likely to swim on two of the three top-seeded relays, and his 50 seed time is only 24 hundredths of a second off the LPD1 record swam by Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central’s Henry Schutte in 2018.

Owen Stevens, Zeeland sophomore: He debuted at the Finals with a sixth place in the 200-yard individual medley and fourth in the 500-yard freestyle last year, and he returns as the top seed in the IM (1:54.30) and 500 (4:38.99) and possible swimmer on two top-three seeded relays.

Ann Arbor Pioneer 200 freestyle relay: The Pioneers have a seed time of 1:25.53, nearly two seconds faster than second-seeded Holland West Ottawa and about 2½ seconds off the LPD1 record of 1:23.25 swam by West Ottawa in 2021.  

Julian Cardenas, Rockford junior: He was last season’s LPD1 diving runner-up, slightly more than 43 points back with a score of 413.55 – but he posted the highest LPD1 Regional score last week of 486.40 to clear his qualifying meet field by 70 points.

Alex Poulin, Waterford Mott senior: Last season’s diving champion with a score of 456.70 posted the second-highest LPD1 Regional score last week, 428.80, to win his qualifying meet by eight points.

Lower Peninsula Division 2 at Holland Aquatic Center

Reigning champion: Ann Arbor Skyline
2022 runner-up: Detroit U-D Jesuit
2023 top-ranked: 1. Birmingham Groves, 2. Detroit U-D Jesuit, 3. Grosse Pointe South.

Jesuit missed a first Finals championship in this sport last season by 25 points and will make another run following 14 entries seeded to score with four top seeds – including two relays – plus two divers. But favored this time is Groves, which finished fourth a year ago, second as recently as 2019 and is seeking its first championship since 2010. Groves has 19 entries seeded to score, with two top seeds. Grosse Pointe South is another regular contender and placed third last season, 53 points off the lead. The Blue Devils also are seeking a first championship and were runners-up in 2021. They have 11 entries seeded to score with three top seeds including a favored relay, and five divers including the reigning champion.

Austin Briggs, Byron Center senior: He finished 10th in the 50 and 11th in the 100 free last season but will push toward the front entering this weekend seeded first in the 50 (20.94) and second in the 100 breaststroke (58.34), with his time in the latter only one-hundredth of a second behind the top seed.

Sean Diffenderfer, Walled Lake Northern senior: The reigning champion in the 500 and fourth-place finisher in the 200 free is seeded fifth in the 500 and 10th in the 200 this weekend.

Ian Duncan, Birmingham Groves senior: He was third in the 200 free and fourth in the 500 in 2022 and should contend again in both seeded third in the 200 (1:43.45) and first in the 500 (4:41.78) while also likely to swim on two of the team’s three top-five seeded relays.

Max Haney, Fenton senior: Last season’s butterfly runner-up and fifth-place finisher in the IM could cap high school in a big way seeded first in the IM (1:51.38), by more than a second, and second in the backstroke (50.48).

Angus MacDonald, Birmingham Groves junior: Another Groves standout, he’s seeded first in the breaststroke (58.33), third in the IM (1:53.35) and also likely will swim on two of those contending relays. He finished runner-up in both the IM and 500 last season.

Keiran Rahmaan, Grosse Pointe South senior: He finished third in the backstroke, fourth in the butterfly and led off the LPD2 Finals record-setting 200-yard medley relay last season, and he also was part of a relay champ in 2021. He could add substantially to those accomplishments; he’s seeded first this weekend in both the butterfly (49.61) and backstroke (49.91) and likely will swim on the top-seeded 400 freestyle relay (3:10.14).   

Evan Tack, Detroit U-D Jesuit sophomore: His Finals debut last season included a sixth place in the IM, 10th in the breaststroke and two top-three relay finishes. He enters this weekend seeded first in the 100 (46.24) and 200 frees (1:41.25) and as part of two top-two seeded relays including the favorite in the 200 freestyle (1:27.09).

Logan Hepner, Grosse Pointe South senior: Last season’s diving champion by more than 49 points went 618.85 to set the pace across LPD2 at last week’s Regionals, although Birmingham Seaholm senior Grayson Davis was his runner-up and the only other to break 600 (or 500) with a 601.90.

Lower Peninsula Division 3 at Oakland University

Reigning champion: East Grand Rapids
2022 runner-up: Holland Christian
2023 top-ranked: 1. East Grand Rapids, 2. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, 3. Holland Christian.

The last two seasons have finished the same way at the top with EGR first and Holland Christian second. The Pioneers are favored again on the strength of 13 entries seeded to score – including two top seeds – and two divers competing. Holland Christian – most recently champion in 2019 and 2018 – doesn’t have a top seed but also has 13 entries seeded to score plus two divers. Cranbrook is seeking its first championship since winning four straight from 2014-17, and has the people to do so with 15 entries seeded to score, including three top seeds, and a diver.

Carter Kegle, East Grand Rapids junior: He finished first in the 500, second in the 200 free and swam on two top-three relays last season, and he returns as the top seed in the 500 (4:40.95), second seed in the 200 (1:43.81) and expected to swim on two top-three seeded relays.

Alec Lampen, Manistee junior: He finished sixth in the backstroke and helped all three Manistee relays place last season, and he should be a major point scorer again seeded first in the 50 (20.92) and backstroke (51.40) and swimming on two top-seven seeded relays.

London Rising, Adrian freshman: He’ll make his Finals debut as the top seed in the 200 free (1:41.71), by two seconds, and the fourth seed in the butterfly, plus he’s expected to swim on two second-seeded relays.

Ethan Schwab, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood senior: He’ll look to add to a relay championship he helped win in 2021, seeded first this time in the IM (1:53.99) and breaststroke (55.92) and as a possibility to swim on two of three top-six seeded relays including the favorite in the 400-yard freestyle (3:13.77). He finished second in both the 500 and breaststroke last season.

Liam Smith, Otsego freshman: Another standout freshman, he enters the weekend seeded first in the butterfly (50.54) and second in the IM (1:55.25).

Ben Sytsma, Grand Rapids Christian junior: The reigning champion in the 100 free and runner-up in the 50 – and champion as well as part of 200 and 400 freestyle relays – is the top seed in the 100 (45.88), the second seed in the 50 (20.95) by just three-hundredths of a second and could swim on the top-seeded 200 free relay plus another.

Mitch Brown, Chelsea junior: Last season’s diving runner-up to record-setting senior Charley Bayer from East Grand Rapids is in position to ascend after positing a division-best 538 to win his Regional last week – clearing the rest of LPD3 by 61 points.

PHOTO Swimmers launch during a Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals race in 2022. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)