New season, new challenge: trials of a trainee swimming gala official

Autumn is most definitely with us, rain and conkers have begun to fall, and most importantly the temperature gauge at the lido is on its way down fast. I had the most perfect end of summer swim at the weekend in the enormous 60m by 27m pool at Gospel Oak which I had all to myself. No one’s limbs but mine breaking the surface of the water, no one to avoid colliding with and no one but me gazing at the silver stainless steel lining on the bottom. Heaven can be the Gospel Oak lido. It was 16′ which is absolutely fine if you keep moving and are sporting a new festive swim cap like mine from Canada.

swim cap

I’m sure autumn’s a time for reinvention, why leave it all to January when you’re feeling bloated, depressed and cold? I’ve taken on new challenges, the first is very much in the spirit of #ThisGirlCan or perhaps #ThisMotherisGoingToTryTo and is to train for British Swimming’s Judge Level 1 qualification. This entails three classroom sessions: learning about time keeping, what’s a legal turn and what’s not, heaps more about correct strokes and watching videos when me the novice tries to spot what on earth the super slick swimmer could possibly be doing wrong.

Then there are the practise sessions poolside – 10+ of these – when the trainees are let loose sans L Plates or even P Plates to time and watch and judge at real galas featuring highly competitive swimmers. You might imagine adrenalin is all kept to the guys diving off the blocks and pounding up and down, but oh no, I was overflowing with the stuff as I stood there all in white (eek, yes, white polo shirt, white jeans, white flip flops and *tangerine toe nails*) clasping the stopwatch in one hand and the back up button in the other trying not to press STOP or LAP or START prematurely.

This first poolside practice was at Barnet Copthall, a pool I have travelled to many times for the Super Swimmer’s (now aged 11) galas. I normally fail to get a seat to watch, so squidge up with other parents on the damp concrete. But this time I got to perch on one of the Officials’ Only chairs. There’s a lot of leaping up and down – check out the rule manual:

‘On hearing the long whistle the Timekeepers must;

Stand up to indicate readiness to the Referee (in fact I didn’t want to sit down lest I missed something)

Listen / watch intently for the starting signal (YOU BET I WAS!)

When the starting signal is given Timekeepers must;

Start the watch

Sit down

Check that the watch is running’

But before all that for each race you have to check the swimmer’s in the correct event, correct lane, correct heat, what their name is, what stroke they’re doing and how many lengths. That is a lot of checking, whether you’re talking experienced masters swimmers or enthusiastic and perhaps very nervy young ones. They just thrust their entry card at you, or put it on your clipboard, and if you’re not very careful you end up with a wodge of cards not knowing who’s who. (NB note to tutor: I will get better at this!) I bet I’m not the only trainee who’s panicked at a ‘200m IM’ thinking is that 200m of each stroke, or 50m of 4??

Woe oh woes it went pear-shaped twice. Twice I pressed the wrong button. It’s mortifying as you have to flag down a Proper Qualified Official who takes over timing your lane.

But hey I am really enjoying this. I haven’t got a new qualification for so long, and this is fun, I’m learning rules, understanding systems and getting to grips with the world of competitive swimming which my daughter is so immersed in. The language of the rule book is quite particular, and takes some learning. My tutor was right, it was best to start with a Masters event (so adult swimmers) but I think you get wetter at them, try standing beside the blocks when a grown man dives in, whoosh down the legs goes half the pool water.

The Proper Qualified Officials were so kind, one had laid on an enormous officials’ feast for lunch (I’m wondering what said feast etiquette is, is it an excuse for me to bake and take something along or would that be seen as currying favour at the start of my training?), and some of the swimmers said thank you. But I’m very sorry to the team who asked if ‘are we going over’ for not knowing what on earth that meant (it’s a reference to diving over the top of swimmers in previous race) and hey to the medley team who apparently did an illegal handover but I couldn’t disqualify as I was too busy fretting about timekeeping I do know that the key to being an official is giving the swimmer the benefit of the doubt.

I can’t really believe that I got to time Jane Asher. Not the cake impresario, as I thought of as I looked at the timesheet, but multi medal-winner and record holder – Jane Asher, who took up competitive swimming aged 40 and is an utter inspiration. Here she is starring this video alongside @LouiseMinchin

If you’re swimming this week have a good one – and if you’re officiating and you’re all qualified, good on you, I’ve a long way to go! You can catch me all in white on 19th September…

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