Sault Boys Use Depth To Win U.P. Crown

By John Vrancic
Special for

February 16, 2013

MARQUETTE — When Denise Mayer began her duties as co-head swimming coach at Sault Ste. Marie High School last fall, she didn't really know what to expect from the Blue Devils.

“We started with just a handful of swimmers,” she said. “We had lost a lot of seniors through graduation. We told the kids this would be a building year.”

The Sault boys, however, gained their first Upper Peninsula title in a decade Saturday with 258 points. Not bad for a building year.

“This is a big thing for us,” said senior Bryan Colborn, who won the 100-yard butterfly event in 1:01.28.  “I’m just very proud of our team. We put forth the effort in practice and it paid off today. I could see this building (during the season). Deep down I had a feeling this would happen. I also had the feeling we were all on little bit of a mission during the trip over here.”

Runner-up Marquette scored 225 points and Kingsford edged Houghton 192-190 for third.

Things began on a promising note for the Blue Devils Friday when they grabbed three of the top five places in diving.

Senior Elliott Furr won with 171.05 points. Sophomores Kyle Flickinger and Levi Furr took fourth and fifth at 154.1 and 148.15, respectively.

“We started very strong with our diving,” Mayer said while trying to dry off after jumping into the pool in celebration with her team. “I think that set the tone for the weekend. That encouraged our guys to continue our momentum. We didn’t have many firsts, but we had enough depth to cover the points. We finished the season with 18 boys. Hopefully, this will help increase our numbers next season.”

Junior Nick Chevillot added a second in 200 freestyle (2:01.26) and helped the Blue Devils take second in the 400 freestyle relay.

Mayer, who shares the head coaching job with Kelli Vanderbaun, was quick to credit assistant coaches Jamie Laurence and Dillon Mayer for part of the team’s success.

“They’re a very integral part of the team,” she said. “They’ve done a variety of tasks when needed. They’re part of the glue that holds us together.”

Marquette sophomore Nathan Rotundo won 100 breaststroke (1:03.33) and helped the Redmen take the 400 freestyle relay.

The Redmen had an unfortunate turn of events in Saturday’s first race (200 medley relay) when the officials ruled Rotundo left too soon at the beginning of his leg, resulting in the team’s disqualification.

“Nathan is the most regimented and disciplined swimmer we have,” said Marquette coach Nate McFarren.  “That was an unfortunate beginning, although I don’t want to take away any of the thunder. Each of our kids did their job, and they did it well.”

McFarren was especially pleased with the effort of the team’s lone senior Luke Sides, who was runner-up in 100 backstroke (1:03.07) and third in 100 freestyle (52.82) and helped the winning 400 freestyle relay.

“For Luke, this was a great ending to his career,” said McFarren.

The Redmen swam without freshman Sam Williams, who was out with the flu.

“Sam is our top butterfly and No. 2 breaststroke swimmer,” said McFarren. “He would have gotten us 30 points.”

Kingsford senior Josh Johnson set the pool record in 50 freestyle at 22.02 seconds, with Houghton senior Daniel Shonnard runner-up (22.75)

Johnson and Shonnard also went 1-2 in 100 freestyle in 49.25 and 50.38, respectively.

“This season has gone well,” said Johnson, who plans to enroll at Michigan Tech this fall. “I’ve made more friends from other teams. It’s a lot of fun competing with people I know. Daniel has been pushing me all year. We’re so close and we’re both seniors. We’re in the same position. It’s not a rivalry. It’s just fun competition.”

Houghton senior James DeClerck won 200 freestyle in a school-record 1:52.52 and 500 freestyle (5:08.3).

“I was just zoned in this morning, preparing for the races,” said DeClerck, who hopes to swim in college, but unsure of where he’ll attend classes this fall. “I’m happy with my times this season. Overall, this is a great meet. I’m very happy to be a part of this with all the great swimmers throughout the U.P.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Champion Sault Ste. Marie poses on the trophy stand after claiming this season's Upper Peninsula championship. (Middle) A pair of swimmers race during Saturday's Finals at Marquette High School. (Photos courtesy of Keith Freeman of Freeman's Photography.)

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.)