Rice 3-Peats at Meet Loaded with Stars

March 12, 2016

By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half

HOLLAND – On paper, it appeared the Birmingham Brother Rice boys swimming and diving team had an easy road to winning the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Swimming and Diving Finals at the Holland Aquatic Center. Totaling 313 points, Brother Rice outdistanced second-place Saline by 77 points.

But winning the title, Brother’s Rice’s third consecutive, was anything but easy as the Warriors overcame plenty of obstacles during the season and then held off a number of impressive teams in this weekend.

“We went through a lot of adversity this year,” Brother Rice coach Mike Venos said. “We almost lost a kid to meningitis this year, and we also lost some kids that we expected to score points for us this year.”

To overcome the hurdles, Brother Rice closed ranks and used its overall team depth to march to its third straight title.

“This was the best team effort I’ve been around,” Venos added. “That was the big key for us, our team effort. Our overall team depth carried us all year. The kids understand that the most important thing is the Warrior on our chest and not any individual glory. They always put the team first.”

That team-first attitude showed up in the relays where Brother Rice swimmers won two of three and finished second in the third.

Brother Rice captured the 200-yard medley relay as sophomore Alex Margherio, senior Drew Grady, junior Jake Zalinski and junior Jack Grady turned in a winning time of 1:31.55. The Warriors also won the 400 freestyle relay as Zalinski, senior Bobby Powrie, Margherio and junior Patrick Olmsted turned in a winning time of 3:05.94.

Brother Rice also had an individual champion as Drew Grady won the 100 Breaststroke by more than two full seconds with a time of 55.18.

The lone relay not won by Brother Rice was the 200 Freestyle Relay. Ann Arbor Pioneer, the fifth-place finisher overall, captured race as senior Andrew Heise, senior Joe Riggs, junior Noah Frassrand and senior Jason Orringer-Hau turned in a time of 1:24.41 to edge Brother Rice by fourth tenths of a second.

Individually, Monroe senior Cameron Craig put on a spectacular show of swimming excellence, winning a pair of individual titles in LP Division 1 and all-Finals record times.

One of the top high school swimmers in the country, Craig won an MHSAA title as a sophomore. Last year, however, Craig took the year off from high school swimming to train for the upcoming Olympics.

“This is my senior year and I just wanted to come and see everyone that I competed against as a freshman and a sophomore,” Craig said. “This is really a good way to end the year.”

Craig, who will swim collegiately at Arizona State University, raced to victory in the 200 individual medley in a record time of 1:45.42.  He set his second Division 1 and all-Finals record in the backstroke in a time of 47.33. 

“I’ve been training real hard for this,” Craig said. “It was a goal of mine to win these state titles and set new all-class records.”

A local swimmer also came away with a pair of individual titles. Holland West Ottawa junior Spencer Carl won the closest event of the meet when he took first place in the 200 freestyle. Carl edged Ann Arbor Skyline’s Ryan Vander Meulen by one hundredth of a second in a time of 1:37.15 while Vander Meulen finished in 1:37.16.

“I’m extremely happy,” Carl said. “He was seeded a full second ahead of me. I think my underwaters were the difference. The last 25 yards I did super. That was what I’ve been focusing on all season.”

The MHSAA title was the first of Carl’s career, but he was not finished for the day. Four events later the local standout added a second title as he won the butterfly in 48.25. That time also set an LP Division 1 Finals record.

“It means a lot to do it close to home,” Carl said. “I had a lot of friends and family here. To do this in front of them is really special.”

Carl wasn’t the only local swimmer to shine in front of the hometown fans, as senior Micah DeJonge of nearby Zeeland won the 500 freestyle in a time of 4:29.23. DeJonge also helped Zeeland to a second-place finish in the 400 freestyle relay and a third-place finish as a team overall.

The diving competition developed into a tight, two-way battle between Saline junior Dakota Hurbis and Rockford senior Jake Herremans.

Herremans came into the event as the two-time reigning champion and LP Division 1 Finals record holder. Hurbis finished second as a freshman and third last year.

This time it was Hurbis who came out on top, as he totaled 516.8 to edge Herremans, who finished a score of 514.55.

“Going in, I really wanted this to be the best meet I’ve had,” Hurbis said. “I really focused on my dives, and once I started hitting my dives I got into a nice rhythm. This is really big for me.”

Hurbis’ efforts helped Saline secure a second-place finish in the team standings.

Jackson O’Dowd, a senior from Livonia Stevenson, was another swimmer who broke through. He won the 50 freestyle in 20.70.

“I finished third in two events last year,” O’Dowd said. “This is a big deal for me and a lot of fun. I was really hoping to win one my senior year.”

Vander Meulen, a champion last season in LP Division 2, did win a close race Saturday in the 100 freestyle. His time of 45.75 edged Henry Schutte of Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central by four hundredths of a second. Skyline finished fourth overall as a team.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Members of the Brother Rice boys swimming and diving team hoist an MHSAA Finals championship trophy for the third straight season. (Middle) Monroe’s Cameron Craig swims the individual medley, one of two races he won on the day. (Below) Holland West Ottawa's Spencer Carl swims for the win in the butterfly. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

DeWitt's Thomas Blazes Swimming Path with Historic Finals Performance

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)