Talented Pioneer Dominates with Depth, Extends Team Title Streak to 4

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

March 9, 2024

ROCHESTER — Just when it seemed like the dynasty that is the Ann Arbor Pioneer boys swim & dive program couldn’t come up with another method for winning a state title, the Pioneers did so at Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Oakland University.

It was something Pioneer head coach Stefanie Kerska said she hadn’t even seen from her team before. 

“We didn’t win a single event, and we didn’t win a single relay,” Kerska said. 

But that didn’t stop Pioneer from winning a fourth straight title, using its supreme depth to collect a meet-best 275 points.

Saline was the runner-up with 245 points, edging third place Detroit Catholic Central’s total of 243.5. Northville (226) and Zeeland (136) rounded out the top-five. 

Oxford’s Olin Charnstrom swims to a repeat championship in the backstroke.“For every single person to play their part and do their job, it’s just a really special feeling for this team,” Kerska said. 

If Pioneer managing to finish first despite not winning an event was not deflating enough for opponents, it may be even worse for them to consider the Pioneer dynasty looks like it will continue for the foreseeable future – with its longest streak of six straight Finals titles won from 1977-82 potentially approached by this group. 

“Ten of 17 had never been here before,” Kerska said. “Our 400 free relay was made up of freshmen and sophomores. We are a fairly young and inexperienced team.”

Individually, two standouts ruled the day. 

The first was Oxford senior Olin Charnstrom, who first followed up a fourth-place finish in the 100 freestyle from last year by winning the event Saturday in a time of 45.03.  

“I really have a drive for freestyle,” Charnstrom said. “Last year, I had a really bad prelims and a good finals. This year, I made sure to come in and leave nothing behind.” 

A short time later, Charnstrom took the pool again and defended his title in the 100 backstroke, winning that event in a time of 48.10. 

“It feels great,” said Charnstrom, who will swim at Wayne State. “My progress from my freshman year to now, every single year I’ve gotten better and put in more work. It’s so nice to see all that pay off.”

The other standout was Zeeland junior Owen Stevens, who defended his titles in both the 200 individual medley and the 500 freestyle. 

Zeeland’s Owen Stevens swims to the win in the 500 freestyle. Stevens, who has committed to Louisville, swam the IM in a time of 1:49.68 and the 500 in a time of 4:27.48.

“This year I came in with more expectations,” Stevens said. “There was some pressure there. It was a little nerve-wracking. But I had a lot of fun, and it was some good swimming. I felt better about the 500 more than the 200 IM. I was little off from where I wanted to be in the 200 IM. But it was still a very good time I dropped from last year.”

Other individual winners were Catholic Central senior Luke Mychalowych in the 200 freestyle (1:37.98), Northville senior Phillip Zhavoronkov in the 50 freestyle (20.65), Rockford senior Julian Cardenas in diving (537.95 points), Rochester senior Lucas Hosch in the 100 butterfly (49.80) and Brighton senior Luke Newcomb in the 100 breaststroke (54.56). 

Catholic Central also won the 200 medley relay in a time of 1:32.61 and the 200 freestyle relay in 1:24.61. Holland West Ottawa won the 400 freestyle relay in 3:08.65. 

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) The championship heat of the 50-yard freestyle, including Ann Arbor Pioneer’s Henry Baumhover and Christopher Leuciuc, launches Saturday. (Middle) Oxford’s Olin Charnstrom swims to a repeat championship in the backstroke. (Below) Zeeland’s Owen Stevens swims to the win in the 500 freestyle. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)