Seaholm Dominates in Regaining D2 Title

March 8, 2014

By Chip Mundy
Special to Second Half 

YPSILANTI – One by one, members of the Birmingham Seaholm boys swimming and diving team approached coach Tom Wyllie – who was completely soaked after a post-meet dip in the pool – and greeted him with a big hug.

When one swimmer offered a handshake, Wyllie insisted on a hug. 

“It’s hugs; we’re all family,” Wyllie told the swimmer. “Soak it in.”

They were soaking in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 champions after a dominating performance Saturday at Michael H. Jones Natatorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. 

Seaholm started the meet with an emphatic statement – an LP Division 2 Finals record performance in winning the 200 medley relay – and ended with a huge exclamation mark – another LP Division 2-record performance in winning the 400 freestyle relay. In between, Seaholm won the 200 freestyle relay, and junior Jack Russell captured the 200 IM for the Maples’ only individual championship of the meet.

The Maples finished with 357.5 points in a complete domination of the meet as Dexter was second with 203. They also won the MHSAA championship in 2011 and were second in 2012 and third in 2013.

Seaholm had 10 swimmers qualify for at least one individual event, and nine swimmers qualified in two. That all happened in an outstanding effort during preliminaries Friday. 

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my 16 years of coaching,” Wyllie said of Friday’s performance. “We were very deep across the board; we had swimmers qualify in every event, and we qualified four 100 freestylers in the top eight – and only had one individual state champion.

“That goes to that team concept – it takes a team to win.” 

The 200 medley relay opened in impressive fashion as Evan Burke, Russell, Cliff Ross and Matt Perham won in 1 minute, 33.41 seconds, narrowly edging Grosse Pointe South’s effort of 1:34.23. The previous LP Division 2 Finals record was 1:34.81 set by Holland in 2013.

“That relay probably would not have been that fast if it had not been for Grosse Pointe South,” Wyllie said. “They were right there with us neck and neck and pushing us really hard. We walked away with the win and a record on top of that. It just set the tone for the rest of the day.” 

The individual highlight of the day for Seaholm came in the third race – the 200 IM – when Russell won in 1:52.10 – more than a second better than his time in the preliminaries. Robbie Zofchak of Dexter was a close second in 1:52.28.

“I had no clue if I won,” Russell said. “When I touched, I just looked at the board and saw first. I thought he caught me on the end. 

“My coach told me that I would have him on the breaststroke, but he’ll be gunning for me on the freestyle. When I looked over in the last 25, I saw he was catching me off the turn. I just put my head down, didn’t breathe and touched the wall and hoped for the best.”

Russell also was third in the 100 breaststroke and swam the second leg on the winning 200 medley relay team. 

While Seaholm had only one individual champion, it had several standouts.

  • Senior Nathan Anderson was on both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays that won, and he also tied for second in the 100 freestyle and was third in the 50 freestyle. “The most important part of that day was getting first with my relays,” Anderson said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without them. Because of them, I got what I wanted – I got my first place.” 
  • Junior Enrique Hernandez was on the winning 200 and 400 freestyle relays in addition to taking fourth in the 100 freestyle and sixth in the 200 freestyle.
  • Senior Mike Shaben also swam on the winning 200 and 400 freestyle relays, and was fifth in the 50 freestyle and sixth in the 100 freestyle. 
  • Perham, a senior, was on the winning 200 medley relay and the 200 freestyle relay, and added a sixth-place finish in the 50 freestyle and an eighth-place finish in the 100 backstroke.
  • Burke, Cliff Ross and Nick Ross each were on one winning relay team. Burke added a fourth-place finish in the 200 IM and was seventh in the 100 breaststroke. Nick Ross was seventh in the 200 freestyle and eighth in the 100 freestyle, while Cliff Ross was seventh in the 100 butterfly. 
  • Sophomore Sebastian Fay was runner-up in diving after placing 24th a year ago.

With the team championship secure, Seaholm went into the final event – the 400 freestyle relay – on a mission. Crosstown rival Birmingham Groves set the meet record of 3:05.63 in 2011, and in the preliminaries Friday, Seaholm was in the neighborhood with a 3:06.99. 

They weren’t to be denied in the final, with Anderson, Shaben, Nick Ross and Hernandez teaming up to win in 3:05.13, shaving a half-second off the LP Division 2 record.

“The state record has always been one of our goals,” Shaben said. “The entire season we’ve been eying it. Two seniors, Nathan Anderson and me, we’ve really wanted to end our season with that record.” 

While Seaholm dominated, there were other standouts as well led by Holland senior Thomas Rathbun. He successfully defended his championships in both the 200 freestyle and the 500 freestyle. His winning time of 4:28.75 in the latter was nearly 10 seconds ahead of the runner-up, and he won the 200 in 1:38.74.

Both times were better than his winning performances from 2013. 

“I feel like that was the most important part,” Rathbun said of his times. “The placing doesn’t mean that much to me – it’s great to be first – but to me it’s more about the times and if I improve on myself.”

Rathbun also was rebounding from a difficult situation last summer. 

“Coming into the season, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” he said. “I had an off-summer dealing with some mono and bronchitis, so it was a slow start.

“I worked through some stuff, and now it feels pretty good.” 

The other successful defending champion was junior John Vann of Battle Creek Lakeview, who repeated in the 100 butterfly. His winning time of 49.23 was better than his 50.83 in 2013.

“It feels really good,” said Vann, who also was second in the 200 freestyle. “I was definitely more confident this year just knowing I had a state championship under my belt, and it just felt really good that I could compete with everybody and just get out there and race them. 

“I took it out a lot faster than Friday, and it hurt a lot more in the end, but it was definitely worth it.”

White Lake Lakeland senior Will Walker, who finished second to Vann in the 100 butterfly, won the 50 freestyle in 20.83 seconds, while Nick Leshok of North Farmington won the 100 freestyle in 46.03 seconds.

The 100 backstroke went to Jason Wesseling of Jenison in 50.05 (just off the meet record of 50.04), and Xinghao Wang of Grand Ledge took the 100 breaststroke in 55.77 seconds. 

The diving portion of the meet went to Swartz Creek senior Jason Maxwell, who outdistanced the field with 437.50 points as runner-up Fay of Seaholm had 375.20. Maxwell had a healthy lead for his final dive – a reverse double somersault in the tuck position.

However, the day and the meet belonged to Seaholm. 

“Everybody played their part – the hugs – we’re one giant family,” Wyllie said. “When family cares about each other, you don’t want to let each other down. Everybody does their part.

“My son was on the last state championship with me. He was a senior and a captain, so that was a different feeling. I was wondering how this one would feel, and it feels like I have 45 sons; it’s just incredible. Both state titles are unique in their own way.” 

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PHOTOS: (Top) Swimmers launch for a leg of a relay Saturday at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final. (Middle) A swimmer surges ahead during his race at Eastern Michigan University. (Click to see 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.)