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Different Strokes for Swimming & Diving Officials

By Rob Kaminski on February 04, 2016 officials

In most sports, officials and athletes share the same competition area within the playing boundaries. That arrangement wouldn’t hold water in swimming and diving, where it’s all hands – and eyes and feet – on deck for those calling the action in the pool. Different strokes for different officials, as they say.

That might be the most overt difference between swimming and diving officials and those in other sports, but there are other differences to be considered for those interested in joining the ranks on deck. One difference involves the scope and purpose of the competition in a sport which is largely individual in nature.

“Swimming is a great sport to officiate because you rarely get parents, coaches or swimmers arguing calls,” said Sue Barthold, a veteran of 30 years with the Michigan High School Athletic Association. “I enjoy talking to swimmers and tracking their times. With this I am able to say to a kid, ‘boy that was one of your best times, congrats!’”

Ray Martin, with 10 more years on deck than Barthold, agrees with that sentiment.

“It is especially important for a good official to always remember our goals and objectives. Part of that is to encourage and assist swimmers for their optimum success,” said Martin. “If an infraction is called against a swimmer, it is the official’s responsibility to make sure the swimmer and coaches understand the nature of the infraction to avoid future infractions.”

Both Martin and Barthold are regulars as officials at MHSAA Finals for both boys and girls each season.

For each, officiating allows them to give back to a sport which has given them tremendous enjoyment.

“Personally, I got involved in officiating because of my swimming and coaching background.  Officiating allows me the opportunity to keep my associations in the swimming world,” said Martin, who at 78 years old is still competing as a Master’s Swimmer.

Barthold spent nearly 40 years coaching the sport, during which time she gained much respect and perspective for the role she now finds herself in.

“I started officiating to stay involved with kids. I was a coach for 38 years and always tried to look at calls from the officials’ point of view,” Barthold said. “So if I didn’t agree with an official’s call, I told myself I really couldn’t argue if the official was in the correct position.”

Like any other sport, positioning is key to successful swimming & diving officiating as well.

“In order to be a good official, you must know the rules and position yourself on the pool deck to observe strokes, turns, starts and finishes,” said Martin. “I believe spectators do not realize the time and effort involved in preparing for the competition.  They see swimmers competing and have no idea of the many hours involved in practice and technique drills.”

Barthold agrees, and suggests that positioning is especially critical in judging the diving competition and calling the relay events. Much like the perpetual “three seconds” cry from the stands during a basketball game, or the “balk” shouts during a baseball game, there is much the spectators can’t see or don’t understand during swimming and diving competition.

“Whether there is a crew of officials or a single referee, it is always important to be in a position to make the call. That means walking the pool side, continuously scanning all lanes, to be able to see any infraction,” Barthold said. “Probably the most frequent infractions the spectators don’t always see or understand take place during diving. Depending on the angle of the spectator they may miss a twist, a break in the form, double hops, etc.  The other area may be the relay starts which can only really be called on a direct line down the lanes with no obstructions. So sitting in the stands 25 yards away, they can’t see the hand hitting under the water or the toes just touching the blocks.”

To become skilled and knowledgeable enough to enter the swimming & diving officiating ranks, much of the same requirements are in place as they are for all sports, including registration and written exams. Some associations, such as the West Michigan association to which Barthold belongs, require new officials to shadow experienced officials for at least one meet prior to working an event.

“Working a swim meet for the first time can be challenging even for those officials who were past swimmers. It is important that new officials ask association members if it is possible to shadow an experienced official,” Barthold said. “Positioning, talking in the mic and cadence of the start are all important to practice.  New officials should contact experienced officials and sit next to them at a meet and discuss scoring when possible.”

It’s that type of support that is critical in all sports, but especially so for such sports as swimming, where relatively speaking the vast majority of people are only exposed to it every four years during the Olympic Games. In order to safeguard the future from an officiating standpoint, recruiting from those around the sport is paramount.

“Many officials have become involved because their children were competing,” Martin said. “Often, there is no support system for new officials unless someone has a buddy or friend who mentors them.  This could become a real problem since we have fewer knowledgeable individuals available for swimming meets within the state,” said Martin.

Diving, in particular, is an area of concern which needs attention, but like anything else it can be mastered with repetitions for those who willing to put in the work.

“Diving seems to be the most difficult to recruit unless the official was a past diver and had experience in judging,” Barthold said. “One way to get experience is to contact a diving coach from a school and attend a practice and judge dives during practice.”

As in other sports, the rewards of officiating go beyond the small monetary value at the end of the night. While swimming and diving is a team sport, the heart of it lies among the individual challenges that push student-athletes to levels they didn’t think possible. Not everyone figures in the scoring of the event, and those who don’t are often responsible for the greatest memories.

“Because swimming is an individual sport you really don’t have to win the race to be a winner; just how did the kid do compared to himself or herself?” Barthold said. “So you often see kids jumping up and down with a fist bump, and they finished last in the slowest heat, but that was the best they had ever done. Plus in swimming you see special needs kids swim and become members of teams. I have seen swimmers with one leg, deformed legs and arms, a blind swimmer and mentally challenged kids. But they swim, and they are a member of a team and sometimes the whole pool -- both teams and parents -- are cheering them on. Can anything get any better than that?”