WO Last-Second Win Will Live Forever

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

March 29, 2019

They’re going to be talking about the final second of this swimming & diving season for a long time at Holland West Ottawa.

By sixth hundredths of that second, the Panthers edged Detroit Catholic Central to finish first in the 400-yard freestyle relay at the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Holland Aquatic Center. West Ottawa led DCC by only two points heading into that final race, and the 40 additional points for the win – compared to 34 for DCC as runner-up – clinched for the Panthers’ first MHSAA championship in this sport since 1971.

That would be plenty to earn West Ottawa the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” honor for March. But it’s just the finish of the story.

The Panthers also had come in runners-up last season and in 2015. They’ve won 47 straight dual meets, stretching back more than five seasons, and six straight league titles. West Ottawa also won all of its invitationals this winter.

But claiming the ultimate championship brought an even greater amount of significance to those achievements.

“This year, this was the expectation,” Panthers coach Steve Bowyer said. “Going into that last relay, there was a lot of pressure because this was a culmination of everything these seniors had been through the last four years. Obviously, as a coach, you’re just sitting there hoping it’s going to go your way, because of what the expectation has been.

“For this group of boys, even if they’d gone in and swam the way they did and gotten beat, it’s still a successful season. But this was the one meet these guys had been working for because we’ve gotten the previous conference championships and invite wins, and after finishing runner-up twice the last 4-5 years, this was the goal for this group.”

The Panthers secured the team win in part with first places in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley from senior Derek Maas, the 200 medley swam by Maas, senior Khadin Soto, junior Gavin Temple and freshman Kevin Maas and the 400 with junior Jamahl Hogan and senior Sam Smith leading off for Maas and then Soto.

The medley relay’s time of 1:31.01 was the third-fastest in MHSAA Finals history, all classes and divisions included. Maas’ IM time of 1:46.70 also ranked third in that event, and Soto’s runner-up time in the breaststroke of 55.33 ranked eighth on the all class/division list for that race. Maas won the butterfly in 48.02 and holds the West Ottawa school records that race and the IM, as does Soto in the breaststroke. The 200 medley relay also set a school mark this season, topping a record board that surely ranks as one of the most impressive in the state – consider that during this decade alone, West Ottawa had 11 individual and five relay Finals champions.

But the team title was another level of accomplishment.

The feeling on this run was different than when Bowyer led the West Ottawa girls team to the LPD1 title in Division 1, because of the great expectations. That girls team was looking for a third or fourth-place Finals finish but pushed into contention with a big first day.

This boys team was ranked No. 1, and as noted, finished first in every dual and invite – made all the more impressive considering West Ottawa’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Red also included LPD1 third-place Hudsonville, 13th-place Rockford, 18th-place Grand Haven and 31st-place East Kentwood.

Keep in mind as well that West Ottawa isn’t the only swimming power, much less MHSAA champion, in its community. Holland Christian won its second straight LPD3 title last month, and West Ottawa won by 35 points when those two met in December. West Ottawa also took a 46-point dual win over neighbor Zeeland, which went on to finish 12th in LPD1, and a 56-point dual win over Holland High, which finished 16th in LPD2.

All set the stage for the Panthers’ Finals run, and last-second win, which has been replayed during post-meet get-togethers, a school assembly, and when Bowyer has had some moments to himself as he’s watched it, said jokingly, “probably more than I should.”

“Being the number one-ranked team all year long, and to have some of the early success we had and put up the times we did, going into that meet, I felt pretty confident,” Bowyer said. “We felt it was going to be our year. We’d had good teams in the past. But a few years ago we ran into Brother Rice which was phenomenal, and Ann Arbor Skyline last year had a great year. This year, we felt it was our year.

“Detroit Catholic Central, I felt, had a phenomenal meet, made things closer than a lot of people expected, and I definitely tipped my hat to them. We feel fortunate to be on the winning end on that touch.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2018-19

February: Lowell wrestling – Read
January: Farmington United gymnastics – Read 
December: Warren Woods-Tower wrestling – Read
November: Rochester Adams girls swimming & diving – Read
October: Leland boys soccer – Read
September: Pickford football – Read
August: Northville girls golf – Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Holland West Ottawa celebrates its first MHSAA Finals championship in boys swimming & diving since 1971. (Middle) Khadin Soto was among the team’s stars during the LPD1 meet. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)