Profile: Caleb Rice ready to help lead Pioneers to another Division 1 state title

Caleb Rice says it’s been a fun four years swimming for Pioneer High School. If fun is the byproduct of success – or is it the other way around – then Rice and his teammates have had a blast.

This year’s Pioneer senior class has never lost a dual-meet, not one in four years. The defending Division 1 state champions are heavy favorites to repeat again at this weekend’s MHSAA Division 1 state swimming and diving finals. And the Pioneers swam away with the SEC Conference meet recently at Skyline – leaving a pool full of talented teams in their wake.

But success is only part of the story for the 2022 Pioneer boys’ swimming and diving team.

“This year’s team is great,” says Rice. “We have a lot of really talented guys. It’s really fun getting to watch all the guys swim at the meets and see them go insane times! The season has been going well so far. Recently, at our Senior Night Meet we broke the pool record in the 200 and 400 free relay.”

Rice has qualified for the State Finals in the 200 IM, 100 backstroke, 500 freestyle, and 100 fly.

“My individual goals for this year are to place in the top heat at states in my events and my team goal is for us to win every meet including the championship,” he said.

Rice says he was introduced to swimming when he was only a few years old.

“My parents would take me to the YMCA to splash around and I just fell in love with swimming,” he said. “I was having so much fun playing in the water that I asked to sign up for swim lessons. I took lessons at the YMCA until I was old enough to join the swim team.”

He would join Vets Park, Mack Manta Rays, Club Wolverine, and finally Pioneer when her arrived to high school. He started swimming for Club Wolverine in 2015 at the age of 12.

“I only ended up joining because my friend Derek convinced me to and I’m so grateful he did,” Rice says. “I’ve only ever been with CW as my club team because I loved it so much and I met some of my best friends while swimming there.”

He is also proud to have worked with some of his “all-time favorite” coaches including Gunnar Schmidt, Pat Wickering and Kyle Begley.

“A highlight for me would be my first state championship meet with (Pioneer teammates) Jack Wilkening and Ryan Hume,” Rice says. “We got to hang out a lot on and off the pool deck and because we all swam backstroke we called ourselves the Backstroke Boys. I still swim with CW when I’m not swimming for Pioneer and I couldn’t imagine swimming anywhere else.”

Rice began his Pioneer career as a distance swimmer. His freshman and sophomore years, he swam the 500 free and the 100 back. He placed 15th in the 500 at States as a ninth-grader.

“That year we had four amazing captains who all inspired me to want to lead the team my senior year,” he said. “We also had a lot of great role models in the other classes, too. I remember Vaughn Hajra, who was a junior at the time, was so nice to me that I thought he had to be a captain because who would go out of their way to hang out with a freshman. Turns out he’s just a really good person and that really stuck with me. It inspired me to go out of my way to talk to everyone on the team and check up on them.”

As a sophomore, Rice continued to swim the 500 and 100 back.

“We had a really great year, continuing our win streak,” he said. “Towards the end of the season was when COVID cases started popping up in Michigan. The day before our state meet we found out it was canceled, and that we’d have school off for a few weeks. A few weeks turned into the rest of that school year. All the pools were closed which meant we never got to finish that season.”

Fortunately, Rice was able to transition back to CW where Coach Gunnar kept the team motivated with online dryland workouts. And as soon as outdoor pools started opening up, Rice and his teammates started jumping back into the water.

“I was very fortunate to be able to swim throughout most of the pandemic,” he said.

The following year’s high school season was pushed back to the start of the new year, meaning they only had three months before the state meet. “Our limited time inspired everyone to push themselves in the time we did have,” Rice says. “This led to us winning the championship meet last year and we’re hoping to do it again this month.”

There have been many highlights for Rice over the four years with at least one more still to come. “One of my favorite meets was last year’s state championship meet because not only did we win but I got to share that win with a lot of close friends,” he says. “Another great meet was this year’s Senior Night meet because it cemented our 37-0 dual-meet win streak across all four years, and I was part of the 200 free relay which broke the pool record.”

Another important meet for Rice was the state finals his freshman year because he felt like he contributed to the team with his 15th place finish.

Rice also has had a lot of fun and success playing water polo. “I’ve also really enjoyed playing water polo my freshman and sophomore years,” he says. “I’ve known most of these guys since kindergarten so getting to play water polo in high school together was a blast. I remember going to a tournament in Hudsonville and getting destroyed, but I had so much fun playing with my friends.”

Caleb, 18, is the son of Shannon and David Rice. Also a member of A Cappella Choir and water polo team at Pioneer, Rice is singing and swimming to a 4.0 GPA in the classroom. Outside of school he enjoys reading comic books, playing with his dog, and binge watching TV – such as The Mandalorian, Friends and The Umbrella Academy.

His favorite choir concerts were all the Choral Cavalcades because their director “picks out the most fun songs for us.”

“I’m really looking forward to this year’s concert at Hill Auditorium,” he says. “I also love the concerts at choir camp because we perform after only learning the music for six days. I’m really grateful I got to do it in person my senior year.

“I’ve made a lot of great memories at Pioneer and I’m sad to leave but also excited for whatever comes next.”

He will be heading north after high school.

“I plan to swim at Northern Michigan University in the fall,” says Rice, who plans on studying biology and then go on to study Marine Biology in graduate school. “I really liked the campus, what it has to offer academically, and the swim team felt so welcoming when I went to visit.

“Recently, a few of the swimmers came down to Ann Arbor to swim in a last chance meet, and I was invited to watch and cheer them on. All the swimmers were so nice and we went out to eat at the Original Cottage Inn downtown. Pioneer has felt like a family to me so it’s important that where I go to college feels that way as well.”

Photos by Shannon Rice and Linda Hemlin