Thank you to officials standing damp-legged & soggy-footed poolside at swimming galas

What is it that makes people become volunteers? What is it that nudges them into giving up their time? I’ve been mulling over this lots recently, as both parts of my swimming life (gala mum v lido user) need more of them.

Recently I spent the day at Southbury Road Leisure Centre, the venue of a Middlesex Swimming Winter Development Meet, aka swimming gala. There were probably about 30 of us all dressed in white and gathered in a room for the officials’ meeting before the racing began. The President of the London Region stood up after all the poolside tasks had been allocated and safety briefing given, and donned his special chains of office. (Think Mayoral chains with lots of gold and ceremony.) He wanted us to pause and thank the volunteers who had served the region for the past 5 or 10 years, attending galas at weekends, standing poolside, getting quite wet. Each long timer was presented with a certificate and a pin badge, and thanked.

These volunteers, in their 60s and 70s are people are giving back to a sport long after their own children have stopped competing. What makes them do it? Without them competitive swimming would grind to a halt. In hindsight this low key ceremony should have taken place poolside, in front of swimmers and parents.

I had a very long break from volunteering, ie from sixth form through to 18 months ago. A 20 year gap of not pulling my weight or putting anything back. Caused partly by not really knowing how the swimming system worked. Now I’m proud to be a fledgling volunteer and a trainee official.

As I see it, there are definite upsides to being an official:

  1. if you’re going to have to get up very early to drive a child to a gala you might as well keep yourself busy rather than slumping back into the car or in the spectator rows
  2. it gives you something genuinely useful to do; any parent or carer who says they can ‘work’ whilst at a gala is fibbing. It’s hot, noisy and uncomfie = not conducive to work
  3. if you do get a chance to sit down you don’t have to fight someone for a seat, you have one allocated poolside
  4. you get to know the rules even better than your child (and actually having to learn something in detail is quite fun, stretches the brain in a different way to daily life)
  5. it brings you closer to your competing child, you’re there down on the poolside, at their level, able to keep an eye on their heats
  6. you get a free meal – don’t scoff – it is a luxury to be given a meal that you haven’t thought about, shopped for, prepped, made, served and washed up. So the catering might not be cordon bleu, but hey how nice to have someone else do it for you. And meanwhile you’re not responsible for what the rest of the family eat at home.
  7. you get to give something back into the system, just as other parents officiated for your children so now it’s your turn to keep a watchful eye on a younger generation of aspiring competitors

I brought up the topic of volunteering at the National Lido Conference I attended last month. I want to find out more about volunteering; how to be a better volunteer, how to work with volunteers and how to persuade more people to take up volunteering. At the conference a man who runs an outdoor swimming lake said the most useful thing for him was to know what people could do, and what their limits are – it’s in no one’s interest to promise more than you can deliver.

I’d like to know what magic thing it is that prompts retired people like the officials I saw honoured today into carrying on joining in decades after their kids have grown up and left a sport. Thank you uber volunteers.

A Gala Mum’s top 10 survival tips – enjoying weekends by a swimming pool

gala programmes

As I swam through the steam rising from the warm water at Oasis in Covent Garden I remembered we’ve got another gala this weekend. In fact there’s one this Saturday, another the following Sunday and a third to make it three weekends in a row at the start of February. The Super Swimmer (now aged 12) had a gala-light autumn as settling into and surviving secondary school meant competitions took a bit of a backseat.

I’ve lost count of how many galas we’ve been to, it’s like the board game Touring England zig-zagging from home to Enfield, Barnet Copthall, Braintree, Crystal Palace, Southgate, Harlow, Luton, Basildon and back. Now we’ve finessed our double act I’m enjoying galas and the time we spend navigating around together more and more. Here are my tips on surviving – and enjoying –  gala life.

Check the date & team list

This might seem highly obvious. But it’s the obvious ones that catch you out isn’t it. One winter’s morning we left home at 6.45am. We arrived at the pool and the Super Swimmer disappeared off for her warm up. I went for a run around the neighbouring rugby pitch, and came back to shower. Where a very cross Super Swimmer found me, she wasn’t in the team that day but the next. 6.45am the following day we started again and agreed going forward we would both check the schedule.

Leave enough time (so you can bag a parking space)

Competitors get anxious, and you don’t want yours fretting about arriving late and missing the warm up. But more importantly you need to score a parking space. Some venues share parking with other sports – so when a rugby game coincides with a gala you’ll be looking for space on the golf course…


Pack a bag of easy to eat and high energy foods. Through trial and error, our list now includes homemade flapjack (or cereal bars), dried apricots & raisins, honey sandwich, chicken & pasta in a flask.


They need a big water bottle – and just as important to find out where to refill it. I normally take a couple more, one for me and one spare filled up for the times she can’t find the water fountain. We normally pack one of those concentrated squash things too.

Your work / reading

At first I thought I could take work notes to go through,  a manuscript to read or a book to devour. I soon learned it’s nigh on impossible to concentrate; watching swimmers is mesmerizing and distracting. If you need to work remember, your car is your haven so go and sit in there during the warm up at least (this often lasts for an hour), and for all other times just read a newspaper (as unlike with a book it doesn’t really matter if you forget every word, and there are nice pictures to look at).

Phone Charger

Essential for those Spectator Endurance Events that last all day. Though at some pools getting access to a plug to charge up is a sport in itself.

Get Away From the Pool

Your car is also your swimmer’s haven. If you can get them out into it during the lunch break. Away from chlorine, damp kit and noise they can chill out, eat and listen to their own noise with our without their friends. Or take them for a drink at a café off site (the golf club café at Barnet Copthall does a mean hot chocolate).

Their Kit

Swimmers have a lot to think about. So some might leave their goggles / racing costume / towel / top / flipflops poolside. Having once had to return to the site of a gala to retrieve a sweatshirt amongst 3 bin liners of forgotten kit we now have a checklist as nagging is better than return trips. Some dry kit and a spare towel is always welcome in the car, particularly for those 3 sessions morning, afternoon and evening events.

Your Kit

At some galas there’s not enough seating for all of the parent spectators. So far I’ve found seating under most pressure at Barnet. So if you’re going there pack a garden kneeler. You may laugh, but sitting on an inch of plastic covered foam is a heck of a lot nicer than on very wet concrete.

Helping Makes the Time Go By in a Flash – albeit a slightly damp one

One sure fire way to make galas pass faster is if you are working poolside as an official. As a Judge Level 1 in training / newly qualified Time Keeper (hurray!) gala hours whizz by in a blur of concentration. There are also seats reserved for you (no kneelers required) but I’m too nervous to sit down….!

Final piece of advice

Make the most of the fact your child wants and needs you there to support and champion them. Soon they *might* be able to get the train on their own…

My challenge to swim the distance to Pells Pool in Lewes continues

5090 lengths – 140 = 4850 lengths to go