South Lyon Soccer Standout Dives Back In for Big Pool Finish

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

March 10, 2022

Never mind that swimming isn't Josh Mason's best sport. Forget the fact that he left the sport after his freshman year to concentrate on his first love – soccer.

Well, Mason is back in the pool and he's making waves.

This weekend Mason and his South Lyon teammates will head to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Swimming & Diving Finals at the Holland Aquatic Center.

The prelims begin at noon Friday with the championship races starting at noon Saturday.

Mason, a 6-foot-5, 190-pound senior all-state center-back on the soccer team, qualified in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, but he and coach John Burch have decided to forego his entry into the 100 in an attempt to enhance South Lyon's chances in the team competition. In addition to the 50, Mason will compete in all three relays – the 200 medley and two freestyle relays (200 and 400).

Opting out of the 100 suits Mason just fine. His best event is the 50, and he said “the last 25 (yards) of the 100 is a struggle for me. It takes everything I have to get through it.”

Whether it's in the pool, on the pitch or in the classroom, Mason never gives anything less than 100 percent. His drive to excel, he quickly admits, comes from his parents, Caroline and Chuck Mason.

Both competed in athletics; Caroline was a collegiate track athlete, and Chuck played soccer in high school.

South Lyon soccer“I started swimming when I was 3 or 4,” Mason said. “It was just one of those things where my parents wanted me to learn how to swim. I just really enjoyed it, and I kept coming back.”

His start in soccer also came before the age of 5 and Mason found a balance by competing in both, though soccer gradually became priority one.

“With my dad having played soccer, he's enjoyed being around and being a part of it,” Mason said.

“I always loved soccer. I have a love-hate relationship with swimming. It gets you into shape. (Swim) practices are hard. I use it for conditioning. It translates well to soccer.”

Mason competed in swimming because it was fun at an early age. When he entered high school, he realized he was pretty good at it – and so, that being the case, why not try out for the swim team?

Burch was there to welcome him with open arms.

“Josh? He's just an elite athlete,” Burch said. “He wants to succeed. He wants to excel. He's worked hard to get where he's at.”

Like Burch, South Lyon soccer coach Brian Elliott, who just completed his 10th season as the boys head coach, knew he had an outstanding player when Mason entered high school.

“He was a man among boys, even when he was a freshman,” Elliott said. “We knew he was something special. He was a three-year captain. That doesn't happen. He's our first for the boys program. He was one of our tallest players even when he was a freshman. He was thin then, but he's filled out since. As a center-back, the best ones are tall. And he has the agility of someone who's 5-8 or 5-9. Josh is somehow this physical phenom. The last two years he was able to physically dominate.

“He's a once-in-a-lifetime student-athlete for a coach.”   

But as a swimmer his freshman year, was Mason in over his head competing for one of the top, if not best, swim programs in the Lakes Valley Conference? He was eager to find out. 

Was he inexperienced? Absolutely. Did he show promise? No question.

South Lyon swimmingThere was one snag. His commitment to soccer.

“His mother and I had a conversation before the season,” Burch said. “She told me that he wouldn't be able to compete at the Finals because there was a big soccer tournament., When it came time for the Finals), I thought, I could really use Josh. I'm sure he wished he could have competed at the states. But soccer was his sport. I understand that.”

As Mason's involvement with soccer increased, his time for other outside activities shrunk. This led to his decision not to compete in swimming his sophomore and junior years. But a promise was made, behind closed doors.

Burch said Mason's teammates continued to recruit him to return. Mason had one stipulation – once his soccer season was over, and his verbal commitment was made to a university, he would be free to rejoin the swim team. In October, Mason committed to Michigan State – opening the door for his return.

“I always thought he'd come back,” Burch said.

It took Mason a few weeks to get back into shape in the pool, and when he did, he took off. At the conference meet he won both of his individual events and was part of two winning relay teams (200 and 400 freestyles) as South Lyon took home the title.

“I knew what kind of kid he is,” Burch said. “I had him in class in the eighth grade. When he came back this year, I didn't know what I'd get. I didn't know what to expect. Heck, he'd been away for two years. Maybe he'd go through the motions. But he's not that type. If he's going to do something, you know he's going to do it well. I knew I was getting a good kid, someone who will add to the team.

“Sure, he's accomplished a lot. At the same time, when he was a freshman, if you would have said he would accomplish all of this, I would say, yes.”

Regardless of how races finish this weekend, there's a happy ending. Mason, a remarkable student as well sporting a 4.1 GPA, has his scholarship. The South Lyon swim team welcomed a teammate back.  And Burch is sending another competitive team to the MHSAA Finals.

Tom Markowski primarily covered high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. He also is a former correspondent and web content director for State Champs! Sports Network. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS (Top) South Lyon’s Josh Mason shows his medal after winning the 50 freestyle at the Lakes Valley Conference championship meet. (Middle) Mason sends a shot toward the net during a game last fall. (Below) Mason launches at the start of the 100 freestyle league final. (Photos courtesy of the Mason family.)

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.)