By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Jay Thomas got his start as a swim official while lifeguarding meets at a neighborhood pool.
“I was asked to start some races, and I really enjoyed it, so I kept doing more and more,” he said. “I had no idea
at the time that it would become what it is today.”
As his daughters grew and became more involved with swimming (his younger daughter, Morgan, stopped as an 8-year-old to play volleyball; older daughter, Barbara, swam through high school and two years at the University of North Carolina), Thomas volunteered more and more for their meets, reaching higher and higher levels of officiating.
Twenty years, three World Championships, several Nationals, Pan Pacific Championships and Pan American Games and two (soon to be three) Olympic Trials later, Thomas is getting the opportunity to realize his officiating pinnacle.
This summer at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, he will get the opportunity to officiate turns (and most likely some strokes). It will be his first Olympic experience.
Suffice it to say, he’s both honored and excited beyond belief.
“I’m very humbled because there are over 12,000 (swimming) officials in the United States, and I was chosen for the Olympics,” he said. “It’s a great honor because I was nominated for this, and that means I’m doing a good job. That’s really most important.”
It’s also important for Thomas to be part of something that helps swimmers realize their own Olympic dreams.
A swimmer himself (breaststroke in summer league as a youth), he’s officiated the past two Trials in Omaha – as a starter in 2008 and deck referee in 2012 – and finds it incredibly rewarding to be part of the process of selecting the U.S. team.
Thomas said he found out about his selection for the Olympics while he was driving in his car – and it took him completely by surprise.
“I didn’t even know I was nominated, so that made the news that I was selected even more special,” said Thomas, whose wife, Ann, swims Masters. “People have asked me if this is my dream, and while it was never a goal, it’s a tremendous opportunity.
“I got involved (with officiating) largely because of the kids, and it’s been a wonderful 20-plus years volunteering my time for something they love and I also love. It’s amazing.”
As a turn official, Thomas said he is responsible for watching the stroke going into the turn, the turn itself, and the first stroke and body position coming out of the turn – confirming that all three are correct and legal within the rules of the sport.
And while he hasn’t given too many disqualifications for this or other officiating roles he’s had in the past, he remembers the first DQ he had to call many years ago.
“It was about 15 years ago, and during the backstroke turn, this swimmer did a clear violation, so I raised my hand,” he said. “The disqualification was upheld, but when I learned who I had DQ’d, he turned out to be someone I knew, which was a bit awkward. I had to ride home 5 hours with his mom after the meet, but they both understood I was just doing my job.”
When he’s not officiating, Thomas is part-owner in several Orange Theory Fitness studios in North Carolina, making the trip from his home in Plantation, Fla., whenever he can (Barbara still lives in North Carolina, so he sees her on his trips up as well).
A former pilot in the Navy, Thomas was a commercial airline pilot for years before getting involved with the exercise industry, and said he made several stops in Rio during that time.
And while he’s not expecting much free time during his days on the pool deck during the Games, he said officials usually get one day off during big meets (at least they do at Worlds), so he and Ann, who is making the trip over as well, can take in a few sights he wasn’t able to visit during his flying days.
“I’ve never had the chance to see the Christ (the Redeemer) statue, so I’d love to see that, and of course go to the beach and do whatever else we have time for – soak in the culture because Ann’s never been before,” he said. “I’m expecting a well put-together Olympics. Should be a good time.”
Thomas added that while he remains completely objective and detached while officiating (“I often have no idea who’s in the lane I’m watching until the race is over”), he truly enjoys seeing the faces of the athletes when they accomplish their dreams – whether that’s a world title or a best time.
And he never turns down a wet hug.
“At the lower level meets, I often get hugs from the swimmers when they come out of the water, and while I’d be surprised to get one during the Olympics, I wouldn’t say no to one,” he said with a laugh. “There are a lot of non-USA athletes that I’ve gotten to know pretty well who train in south Florida, so they could be in Rio competing for their home countries and one might stop to give me a hug.”
Wet hugs or not, Thomas said he’s looking forward to enjoying the overall Olympic experience because it will be his only time getting to do it.
“It’s not like Worlds or another big meet; once you officiate an Olympics, you don’t usually get the opportunity to do it again, so I want to make the most of it,” he said. “USA Swimming is the largest sport that relies heavily upon volunteers, so this is a testament not only to me but also to the thousands of dedicated officials who do what they do because they love it and believe in the sport and athletes. I’m just one.”