Spring Lake Takes Lead in Pool, Community

February 12, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The Spring Lake boys swimming and diving team has taken a turn toward the elite over the last two seasons, rising from average to one of the best on the west side of Michigan and in its division statewide.

And Lakers over the last two seasons have matched their athletic prowess with a notable outside-the-pool contribution as well, spearheaded by one of its captains.

Spring Lake is the Applebee’s Team of the Month for January after nearly completing one of the most impressive regular seasons in Lower Peninsula Division 3 this winter, and also for an athlete-driven effort that has raised nearly $8,000 over two years to provide services to local cancer patients.

The Lakers finished 11-3-1 in dual meets and rank No. 9 in LP Division 3 after starting this season outside the top 10, with wins over No. 4 Holland Christian, No. 5 Grand Rapids Christian and No. 6 Hamilton twice. Spring Lake also beat LP Division 1 honorable mention Grand Haven for only the third time in program history and first time in at least four seasons – and the team’s losses were to LPD1 No. 6 Zeeland and LPD1 honorable mentions Byron Center and Grandville.

“Three years ago, we had a losing dual meet record. We were losing to teams, a lot of Division 3 teams, and those teams we’ve beaten (the last two seasons),” said Spring Lake coach Jason Lintjer, a three-time MHSAA champion for Grand Haven at 2008 who went on to swim at Michigan State University. “We’re definitely moving in the right direction. We’re getting better year by year.”

The Lakers have also won three invitationals this season: their own, at Ludington and at Bridgman, another honorable mention in LP Division 1. The team’s relays are especially strong – the 200 freestyle relay of Cam Peel, Jacob Weesies, Grant Stille and Evan Wujcik ranks sixth in LPD3 with a top time of 1:31.30, and the 200 medley relay of Peel, Marshall Bailey, Drew Fogel and Weesies is tied for sixth with a top time of 1:43.04. The 400 freestyle relay of Charlie Slajus, Peel, Keon Rick and Fogel is eighth in LPD3 at 3:27.13. All three have qualified for the MHSAA LPD3 Finals beginning March 11 at Eastern Michigan University.

But more than an interesting sidenote is how many athletes could step into those relays and contribute. Peel has the fastest 200 free split, but team’s seventh-fastest swimmer in that relay has been only 1.71 seconds slower. The difference in speed between Slajus’ team-leading split in the 400 free and seventh fastest is only 1.58 seconds.

“The reason we’ve won so much is we’re so deep. Our depth is better than just about every team in every division," Lintjer said. "We don’t have state championship type of swimmers, but we might make a run at a relay because we have four swimmers who can contribute.”

All of this points to Spring Lake as a team on the rise statewide. But adding to these accomplishments has been the work to raise money to assist those fighting cancer, initiated by Rick, a senior.

He watched cancer’s effects first-hand as it took the health of his grandmother, who died in 2015. According to a Grand Haven Tribune report, Rick followed the lead of his brother, who had previously raised a donation to Bluebird Cancer Retreats, which provides programming including counseling for those living with cancer, survivors, and other loved ones and caregivers.

With just a few weeks of work in 2015, Rick raised more than $3,000 for those wishing to take part in Bluebird’s retreats. This year, he raised more than $4,200 with the help of his teammates, coaches and Manistee’s team during their Jan. 21 meet, a “Swim for Hope.”

Rick received donations door-to-door, from businesses and families, Lintjer said, and from Manistee’s program and community as well. Donors could sponsor specific events of the meet or lanes of Spring Lake's pool. Many made donations in the names of loved ones, and those names scrolled on the scoreboard throughout the meet.

In addition to physically organizing most of the meet festivities, Rick directed the effort, instructing teammates who took part as well.

“People are probably surprised he raised $4,000, but I wasn’t very surprised,” Lintjer said. “He’s one our team captains, and pretty much anything he does, he does a great job.”

Spring Lake’s swimming and diving team has 23 athletes this season and has set two pool records, one at home and one at Bridgman. The Lakers will look to repeat as Coastal Conference champions when they host the league meet Feb. 26-27.

Past Teams of the Month, 2015-16:
December: Saginaw Heritage girls basketball – Report
November: Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard volleyball – Report
October: Benton Harbor football – Report

September: Mason and Okemos boys soccer – Report

PHOTOS: (Top) Spring Lake's Eric Schock swims the butterfly during a meet this season. (Middle) Spring Lake athletes wave to the crowd with trophy in hand. (Photos courtesy of the Schock and Rick families). 

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.)