The Time of My Life: Serving as a Swim Meet Timer

Swim Lanes at King County Aquatic Center, Photo by Cecilia Kennedy

Dentists and swim meet volunteer coordinators have to answer similar questions:

  • Will it hurt?
  • How long will it really take?
  • When will I be able to eat?

On Saturday, I added another question:

  • Have volunteer swim timers ever fallen into the pool during a meet?

I asked my husband this question as we pulled into the King County Aquatic Center. I figured I’d ask him because the volunteer coordinator had probably answered enough questions already.

“I’m sure it has happened, though I’ve never seen it,” he said.

“I don’t want to be ‘that timer,’” I replied.

“The one who falls into the pool?”

“That one.”

“Oh, I hope you are! Five to six hours of timing? We’ll need a laugh.

“Thanks,” I said as we walked into the gloomy natatorium.

Slipping and falling into the pool wasn’t our only concern. It was so brilliantly beautiful on Saturday we dreaded spending the whole day indoors at a swim meet while timing swimmers. We whined and complained ad nauseam. Meanwhile, poor Alex was really looking forward to cutting some time from his favorite swim strokes.

“Ugh! It’s going to be hot and humid indoors!” We lamented.

“Why did I even straighten my hair?” I asked.

“I’m sick of sweating everywhere—and I mean everywhere,” Nate moaned.

Once inside however, we remembered why we were there and immediately stopped complaining. Other friendly parent volunteers greeted us and got us started on our assignments, while Alex met up with teammates who were happy to see him. The camaraderie between swimmers and swim parents bonded us all—even if we had to stand for hours, survive long lines of traffic, and endure headaches and growling stomachs.

In fact, of all the swim team jobs, timing is supposed to be the easiest. Also, since timers are right behind the diving blocks, parents get to see their children compete up close. Volunteering to time allows for prime viewing and cheering opportunities.

Randomly stopping and starting a watch however, does not yield accurate swim times. Neither do margaritas. Since Alex’s swim meets are USA Swimming events, margaritas are not allowed. So, there are rules—plenty of rules:

1) Timers receive lists of swimmers’ names. There are also places to write in the times for each swimmer, after each event is over. As swimmers approach the lane, timers can check them off. If a swimmer does not show up, timers can write NS (No Show) in the space for the time.

2) Timers watch for the blue light flash at the start of an event. Once the flash goes off, timers can start their watches. If the stopwatch does not work, timers can raise their hands and get a new stopwatch from a “head timer,” whose job it is to just start watches and keep them running. Usually several head timers are on hand.

3) As swimmers finish their event, timers can go right up to the edge of the pool and watch for the swimmer’s hand, foot, head—or any other body part—to touch the wall. At this point, timers can stop their watches.

4) If there are two timers per lane and several timing methods employed, both timers can stop and start their individual watches at once. At the end of a swim event, when the swimmers have touched the wall, one timer can record both times on the timing sheet, while the other simultaneously stops his or her watch and pushes the plunger on a semi-automatic timing device.

At each meet, there’s usually a “timers’ meeting” to go over the process and rules above. These meetings are typically run by a very serious swim official who tells timers that their job is very important.

“But if there are automatic, electronic timing devices in place, why are we needed?” Someone usually asks.

“We also need that human element as back-up, in case there are discrepancies or the electronic devices don’t work,” the official usually responds.

Timers are also reminded that cameras are never allowed behind the diving blocks, per USA Swim rules. Cameras and videos pose a safety hazard for swimmers and other volunteers on deck. During our timers’ meeting, we were also reminded to smile occasionally and to not help swimmers out of the water even if they are tired or injured. Doing so would probably result in a timer’s unintentional dip into the pool and visit to the emergency room.

So, after our timers’ meeting, off we went. Nate and I split up so we could meet other parents. Luckily, I paired up with a woman who was once a swimmer and who had timed a large number of swim meets. She helped me get organized.

I soon fell into a rhythm of sorts, which I summed up in these 26 easy-to-repeat steps:

Step 1: Nervous swimmers approach the lane.

Step 2: Smile.

Step 3: Try a joke: “Sorry—I’m not a very good timer. Don’t trust me at all!”

Step 4: Watch the nervous swimmer become absolutely terrified.

Step 5: Assure the swimmer it was only a joke.

Step 6: Refrain from telling any more jokes because they’re not funny.

Step 7: Smile.

Step 8: Check the swimmer’s name on the list.

Step 9: Watch for the blue start light.

Step 10: Start the stopwatch.

Step 11: Chat with other volunteers while keeping track of how many laps the swimmers have completed.

Step 12: Get really close to the edge of the pool as the swimmer finishes the last lap.

Step 13: Plant one foot firmly in front of the other in a strong, athletic stance, in order to not fall into the pool.

Step 14: Watch for the swimmer’s hand and stop the timer the minute that hand touches the wall.

Step 15: Record the time.

Step 16: Smile.

Step 17: Reassure, congratulate, and encourage the swimmer.

Step 18: Smile.

Step 19: Catch glimpses of Alex as he finishes his events.

Step 20: Notice that he’s pretty upset.

Step 21: Wish to reassure him, knowing it’s not possible right now.

Step 22: Watch him talk to good friends who reassure him instead and pick up his spirits.

Step 23: Realize he’s growing up and that advice from good swimmer friends means more right now than advice from a mom who has never swum competitively.

Step 24: Look over at Nate, who is working hard and helping other kids while getting to know other parents.

Step 25: Forget that it’s sunny outside and that we could be doing a million other things.

Step 26: Realize there’s no other place I’d rather be.

Your Turn: Where, when, and how do you volunteer? Discuss and share!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s