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Community Sports Hall of Fame

At swim meets, Don Smith has the situation covered

By Carol Gralia, cgralia@patuxent.com

11:38 PM EDT, September 25, 2012

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Don Smith has the perfect analogy for what it's like to be a swim meet official.

"A person who can become a good referee is like a duck on a pond. He looks calm on the surface but underneath he is paddling like crazy."

After almost 20 years as a meet official with the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League, Smith has his demeanor down pat.

"You need to look calm and cool and relaxed even through you have things that are hitting you all the time," he said. "You might have 100 things on your mind."

Are the stroke and turn judges in place? Are the clocks working? Are the swimmers lined up and ready? Are things running smoothly?

As often happens, it's kids that get their parents involved.

Smith's oldest daughter, Kristin, didn't care for team sports, but she took to the water.

"We could not keep her out of the pool," Smith said. "She took lessons and as a family we were always at the pool."

In 1993, Kristin joined the CNSL's Long Reach Marlins team and the rest is history.

Each summer swim season starts with time trials, and someone asked for volunteers and Smith stepped forward. He apprenticed as a starter for those time trials but in the next week or two he was switched to referee and he's been doing that ever since.

If it's a summer Saturday morning, Smith is on the pool deck.

In 1997, he became CNSL's head official. Since then he's trained roughly 50 officials each summer. He's helped write and revise the league's rules and regulations. For the past four years, he's served as head referee of the CNSL's season-ending All-City meet. The All-City meet is a two-day competition that is so large, it's now held in three sessions.

"Don is one of the most experienced volunteers that I've ever worked with as far as knowing the sport from a lot of different angles," said Susan McDonald, the All-City meet director. "He understands it from having a swimmer but also from the perspective of the integrity of the sport. He makes sure that the competition is run in a manner that is fair to all swimmers."

After two years of summer swimming, Kristin decided to join the Columbia Clippers, who swim year round. Instead of sitting in the stands and cheering, her father volunteered to get certified with Maryland Swimming. He worked his way up from stroke and turn judge to starter to referee. Each step takes about a year.

He has refereed Special Olympic meets, international paralympic meets and NCAA meets. His younger daughter, Kelsey, is a senior on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania swim team.

As an official Smith, a logistics and property manager for Honeywell, remains neutral. Even in meets involving his daughters. (Kelsey was the head coach of the Long Reach team this past summer).

Regardless of the level of the competition, he has one motivation.

"I do it for the kids. There's nothing in it for me quite frankly, other than it makes me get off my butt and get active. I do it to support not only my kids, but all of the kids."

Smith got a taste for officiating while he was in college at Penn State. He played intramurals and refereed soccer and softball. He has also officiated youth summer leagues in basketball, softball and soccer.

He knows that officials' decisions aren't always popular.

"Your biggest critic as an official is the person you ride home from the meet with. I used to get peppered with questions," he said. "We officials are human. If you make a mistake, admit it."

"Don is receptive to any question and he tries to explain it so that you can understand why it is," McDonald said. "I love running meets with him as meet referee because I know he's got the situation covered."