2014 SN Diary: Post Mortem

This will be one monster grab-bag of a post. I’m mostly recovered from Summer Nationals—the hypnic twitching has subsided, my muscles have quit yelling at me, and I no longer feel as though I will drop off to sleep any minute, but my ability to focus on the work at hand is not yet what it should be. So I’m not even going to try—I’m just going to throw stuff up here as it comes to me.

This was for me the most difficult SN I’ve ever worked. That’s not to say that it was the worst SN I’ve ever been to—Columbus 2014 was not nearly the threat to Austin 2003, the all-time champion of  horrible SNs, that I’d expected it to be—but it was easily the most challenging SN I’ve worked as BC chair. Partly it was the run-up to the actual tournament. Six weeks out we had no idea whether we’d have as many referees as strips. At the point where referee hiring is usually all but done, we were looking at only about 50 refs for the first half and 40 for the second half.  This for a schedule based on 61 strips and a venue with 65 strips. (We use the extra pod mainly to minimize delays  when an early event is still on strips needed to start a later event.) There were more than the usual number of problems with entries and eligibility, and figuring out BC staffing for 12 days instead of 10 turned out to be trickier than I had expected.

Mostly it was the unknowns I stewed over: Would we finally have enough referees? Strong enough referees? How would coaches and parents cope with the less-experienced-than-usual referee crew? Would the new BC process even work for SN? Would the 25% of the BC staff who’d never worked a SN before be more help than hindrance? Would the projected schedules hold up? How bad were the odds against June 30 finishing at the projected end time? Would we maintain at least a minimal level of competence through the whole 12 days? Would there be enough coffee in Columbus to keep us all alert enough to avoid the worst errors?

So I began the tournament more tired than usual. Fortunately, the first half was the easier half, the Vet/Div half, with a schedule that exemplifies what all of SN should be like. This gave us a chance to get comfortable with the new BC process before we got into the second half horrors, and gave all those eager new referees a chance to get acclimated to the unique pressures of SN.

• Favorite newbie ref conversation:

Newbie Ref (to Sharon Everson): Uh, I think there’s been a mistake. I just checked my report time for tomorrow and it says I’m assigned to Div I. That can’t be right—I’m only a 7.

Sharon (checking Newbie Ref’s name): No, you’re a 5. We promoted you. You’ve done well these first few days.

Newbie Ref (flummoxed): Really? I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

Sharon: You’ll do fine. Don’t worry—we won’t use you too far into the DEs, but you’ll be fine for the pools.

Most of those new and unknown referees were terribly excited to be at SN. They were enthusiastic and hardworking and eager to do their best. It was just heartbreaking that many were out of their depth, and simply didn’t have enough experience for the events they were asked to work. They did their best, but because of the shortage of experienced referees, they did not get the mentoring they needed and deserved. Much to my surprise, there were very few black cards this year—only 4 or 5 over the entire 12 days. We had one black card that was voided because the referee erroneously believed that failure to sign a scoresheet was grounds for expulsion, and there were a couple of sore losers who said something inappropriate to their referee or did something inappropriate with equipment, but nothing much out of the ordinary. By the time we got to the second half, when I’d expected more than the usual number of spectator black cards because of the less-experienced referee crew, coaches and parents seem to have grasped the idea that our refs were doing the best they could under the circumstances. (Either that, or those referees didn’t realize they could do something about abuse directed at them. I choose to believe it was tolerance and understanding.)

World Cup photo break:

So why so much trouble hiring referees for SN? There are those who believe it’s due to a few disgruntled troublemakers attempting to foment some sort of referee rebellion, but any such vocal complainers are not the source of the trouble—they are one symptom of a systemic problem. Our volunteer corps—in all categories—is so overextended, stretched so thin, that we’ve not been able to establish and run the recruiting and mentoring programs we’ve needed for years. Our tournaments—especially but not only SN—are so large and tightly scheduled and the economizing of the past several years to get our finances into the black have resulted in consistently terrible working conditions—hotels remote from the venue, inadequate meal options (both variety and quantity), unconscionable hours on concrete floors, etc., etc. Mix that with high-demand referees running out of vacation days or opting to use those days at better-paying, more pleasant tournaments, add in a lack of significant change despite years of complaints and warnings, and it’s all too easy for many refs to perceive such continued poor conditions as a lack of respect—even contempt—for the volunteers who make our tournaments even possible. Some referees who feel this way become vocal complainers. Others simply opt to do something else with their time and energy.

It will take us years to fix this.

The second half was what it was. There were occasional problems with the monitors, due to our original consumer-level equipment bought for proof-of-concept being overtaxed by the additional demands we put on it. (There’s a proposal for upgrading our equipment to handle the load.) By the time we got to the really ugly days, we were all in survival mode, focusing on getting through the next round, the next event, the rest of the day, hoping that meals would be palatable enough not to have to force ourselves to eat just for the fuel. (Hence the vacuum effect that occurred when candy or cookies or other treats were dumped onto tables in the referee corral.)

There was this:

JMETM checkin

This is what check-in for 65 teams looks like. (We’re still dazzled by how early the JME team check-in was done—especially considering it occurred while the JME individual event was in progress.)

Another favorite referee moment:

 Day 11, about 7:30 am. Most of the tables in the referee corral are filled with referees getting their morning coffee fix, waiting for their 8:00 assignments. Adam Brewer stands up.

“I have something to say,” he says. “How many of you have been here since the first day?”

Perhaps 60% of the referees there—along with half the BC staff facing the corral—raise their hands.

Adam proceeds through the corral, high-fiving every raised hand.

This is inexplicably encouraging.

Somehow we made it through. Eventually there was this:

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

And this:

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

Inevitably, there were travel problems due to Hurricane Arthur and other storms around the country. Too many people got stuck an extra day in Columbus or strange layover cities on their way home, but it sounds like we all made eventually made it.

And those BC staff who’d never worked a SN before? They rocked.

Oh, and there were carpets:

Update: One last item that I forgot to include: if you haven’t seen them yet, these 360-degree panoramas of the venue are amazing. Take a look!

The Big Time

In the weeks since this year’s Summer Nationals in Columbus, I’ve been pondering a few of the arguments I’ve heard for keeping USA Fencing national tournaments as large and overwhelming as they’ve become over the past few years.

Naturally, I’ve decided they are idiotic.

Take for instance, the idea that national tournaments should remain gigantic because their size demonstrates to the competitors that they have “hit the big time.”

I certainly understand the reaction. I remember when my daughters and I first started traveling to SN and NACs. We were impressed by pretty much everything—the number of strips, the number of competitors, the armory line, the long wall full of vendor displays, the length of the competition day. It was really cool, and doing well enough to win a medal in this environment was definitely a way bigger deal than it was in any of the local or regional events we’d seen before.

After a few events, though, even at that very first SN, the novelty and excitement moderated a bit. We began to wonder at mysterious delays—the long waits between rounds and even after the end of an event, the all-too-frequent announcement of the award ceremony as much as two or three hours after the gold medal bout. (After I began working BC myself, I learned this was because back then (c. 1999), part of the BC chair’s job was to find the people to present the medals—if it was the middle of the day, the likeliest suspects were probably at work coaching or reffing, the BC chair was trying to get the next event out and often got distracted enough to forget the pending presentation(s). The creation of our dedicated awards staff is, for me, right up there with lettering the pods for keeping the BC chair’s job doable as our events grew ever larger.)

Using sheer size as a metric for having made it to the big time strikes me as exhibiting a lack of imagination. Other major events in our sport manage to be impressive without being so huge and unwieldy. The NCAA fencing championships have 144 athletes—only 24 in each weapon. The fencing competitions at the Olympic Games are not much bigger. Not many would dispute that the athletes competing in those events have made the big time.

But those smaller big-time events can do quite a bit to make those athletes feel special, not to mention to make their spectators feel they are watching something special. (For one thing, there are actual spectators, people who come specifically to see the competitions and aren’t just watching because they would have been there anyway.) There are opening and closing ceremonies, awards presentations in the main venue where everyone can see them, instead of off in a corner where they won’t be in the way of continuing events. Athletes and officials are introduced. There are sponsors—not just sponsors with banners hung on the walls or above strips, but sponsors who provide material goods—receptions for athletes, coaches, and officials; water and snacks throughout the day; bags (or in the case of the Olympics, duffle bags full) of goodies—clothing and accessories, and souvenirs to take back home as mementos of having made the big time.

There are lots of ways we could make our athletes feel special from their accomplishments at the national level. But cramming as many as we can into a limited space over a limited number of days with officials who are so exhausted they can’t do their jobs as well as they want to isn’t anywhere near the top of my list.

#usfaSN? Not So Much.

It was a good idea.

You’d think I’d have had plenty of time for little 140-character blips with the feast or famine nature of Summer Nationals— either I’m frantically busy or I’m waiting for something to happen so I can be frantically busy again. But it seems that neither state is the right state for tweeting for me—I don’t easily switch back and forth between writing mode and BC mode.

Unlike last year, though, my first day off isn’t coming after five straight days of working as chair, so I’ll be able to write a bit more contemporaneously than last year. Instead of as-it-happens, we’ll have slightly-after-it-happened.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly About SN

A week from today, the 2011 US Fencing Summer National Championships will be underway in Reno. I keep changing my mind about whether I’m looking forward to it or not.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing (most of) the people I’ll be working with. (And even those I’m less fond of can be entertaining, though not always in a good way.) I’m looking forward to seeing some fencing, which I hope to have time to watch on days other than my days off. I’m looking forward to the quick drive up over the mountains instead of to a long day of flights and layovers.

But which of these are the good, the bad, or the ugly about SN? So many are like ambiguous visual illusions, such as the Necker Cube or Rubin’s vase, switching back and forth between incompatible interpretations.

  • Reno 2011 looks to be the largest SN ever, 3,427 fencers competing in 6618 individual entries and 359 teams. That’s bigger than both Atlanta 2006 and 2010, both of which were, shall we say, challenging.
  • Overlapping six days of our SN will be the Pan American Zonal Championships, to qualify individuals for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Zonals will be using a separate hall at the convention center but also a few of our top referees. (However, the BC staff that had been assigned to the Zonals were given back to SN, so we’ll be slightly better staffed—if more crowded—than usual. We’ll even have three BC chairs this time, which could mean that none of us will end up having to talk ourselves through normally easy tasks.)
  • There is not enough room in the venue for all 60 of our strips, so the finals strip and seating area and two pods of four strips each will be in a separate room attached to our main hall. It’s entirely possible I could end up missing this season’s too-large empty spaces in Dallas.

There are, of course, unknowns about Reno, too: How much will each day’s schedule slip from the mostly bearable projections? Will the officials’ food be reasonably decent? (One big advantage to Reno is that no matter how late events run, there will be restaurants open when we’re done.) Will there be enough referees when we need them? Will the board meeting end before midnight?

Sure, it’ll be fun.

I’ll just keep telling myself that.