Officials:More Than Just Polos and Khakis
By Franny Dean and Ellie Walstad // Athlete Representatives on the USA Swimming Officials Committee
Swim meet staples: a pool, swimmers, blocks, and a timing system all quickly come to mind. But perhaps the most important ingredient of a swim meet is the group of volunteers wearing polo shirts and khakis: the officials. They are neither hiding nor wearing capes of invisibility, but athletes rarely notice or appreciate them. In being appointed members of the USA Swimming Officials Committee, as athletes we have gained a new perspective on this important facet of our sport.
Athletes rarely think of officials lest they have a complaint. “I can’t believe they held the start so long!” “My relay exchange was totally legal!” “I most definitely touched with two hands!” We’ve all heard these complaints around the pool deck and perhaps made some ourselves, but have you ever looked at meets from an official’s perspective? Officials spend hours volunteering on a pool deck to ensure that you have a fair opportunity to compete. In addition to judging the legality of our strokes, (the task most associated as the duty of an official) they work behind the scenes to facilitate our meets by performing tasks ranging from processing entries to producing meet results. Officials are always looking out for us. We had the opportunity to talk to Carol Zaleski, an official and the chairman of the FINA technical committee, and learned about the site checks she performs before international meets. She, along with other officials, visits every major meet venue to assess the quality of the natatorium and ensure athletes will have adequate seating areas, changing areas, warm down areas, and more. This is just one example of the work rarely seen by swimmers that officials do to keep the swimming world a well-oiled machine.
In becoming members of the USA Swimming Officials Committee, we have learned to see swimming from a new perspective and notice those staples in white. National Officials Committee chair, Jim Holcomb, asked us at the committee meeting in San Antonio about our swim meet pet peeves. We described our annoyance with slow starts (the kind where it feels like you have been taking your mark for eternity before you can finally go). The response from the group was a chuckle, “Well, if only you’d all go down at the same time…” What we perceive as an error by an official could really be the fault of a nervous swimmer two lanes down.
Similarly, officials do not make disqualifications because they are nit-picky or dislike your stroke, but rather to ensure fair competition for all athletes. Imagine how it would feel to be beat by a swimmer performing three illegal butterfly kicks during your 100 Breaststroke. Officials are there to prevent that. They are so focused on being fair that any disqualification that is incorrectly written up or incorrectly processed must be investigated. The benefit always rests with the athlete.
Through our experience on the committee, we have come to realize how much officials love the sport of swimming. They volunteer hours of their time to reviewing the rule book, taking online certification tests, and standing on a stuffy pool deck because they enjoy it. Many officials were once swimmers. Jim used to swim distance freestyle. Other officials got bored of sitting in the stands during their children’s meets and fell in love with being an on deck volunteer. Carol got started this way.
Officials enjoy working swim meets. During meals and meeting breaks in San Antonio, officials’ committee members entertained us with stories from meets. We heard about Olympians being disqualified, athletes boisterously protesting their calls, and even some fun personal anecdotes. Jim recounted the hilarious story of a swimming race between himself and another official a few years ago between sessions at a meet. Jim remarked that he would have won had his swim trunks not fallen off at the flip turn. Jay Thomas, head of the Rules and Regulations committee, told us that he remembers something from every national meet he has officiated. Swimmers get ribbons and medals from swim meets; officials get stories.
We also mentioned at the committee meeting in February that officials can be intimidating to athletes. Committee members were disappointed to hear so. Jim explained that he simply has an “intimidating disposition,” but that he is really very warm and inviting. Other officials commented about a time where Carol looked extremely serious on camera escorting Missy Franklin to and from the warm down facilitates between events at an international meet. Carol laughed, and explained she was just very focused on getting Missy to where she needed to be. Officials are often concentrating so hard on making our meets run smoothly that they can appear cross when they are in actuality very friendly and excited.
Next time you are at a swim meet, we urge you to look at the meet from an official’s perspective, and perhaps thank one of them for all the work they do behind the scenes. Like we’ve discovered, you too can notice the watchful in white at the end of your lane. They deserve a thank you; not just for the countless splashes they endure and the crazy swimmers they have to deal with, but for their continuous support of the greatest sport.