A Smitty Tale: Umpiring in the Time of COVID-19
News/ Jun 30

A Smitty Tale: Umpiring in the Time of COVID-19


Accounted by Andrew Smith, written by Joshua Smith


Hi, I’m Andrew, but you can call me Smitty. I have been an RCA Umpire for many years, along with my wife Meredith. I’ve been to Sarasota for the World Championships, and I’ve been to BC for the World Coastal Championships. When I initially applied to umpire for the Paralympic Qualifier back in 2019, I was looking forward to another spirited regatta. This time in Italy, in which Meredith and I would tour the countryside following the race.

For those of you that know me (and I’m sure I know a lot of you), I have a background in accessibility equipment (wheelchairs, etc). So, when I was selected to be an International Technical Official (ITO) spare, I also decided that should they not need me as an ITO, I would volunteer to be a National Technical Official and hopefully go anyways.

Then…you know.

It was a disappointing summer of 2020, which many of us experienced in the rowing community. Being on and off the water, with ever-changing rules and guidelines to follow and re-adjust to. I moved the Erg into the basement and kept trucking away.

Then…

On April 27, 2021, I was again sent an invitation for the Paralympic Qualifier in Graviate, Italy. This moved me from being a spare to being on the Jury and I had only three days to answer. This would be my very first regatta as an ITO jury member and I debated about it a little bit and then decided to leap at the chance.

I don’t think the people in the Ontario rowing community will have to work very hard to imagine how rigorous and thorough the COVID-19 protocols around an event like this would be. I had to get a PCR test to get into the venue in Italy exactly three days before my flight and a rapid test within 48 hours to get to the US to my connecting flight. All at my own cost. And if any of those came back positive, the whole journey would be cancelled.

But my luck and my mask held. After a few days of swabs, paperwork and tests I was in the small town of Gavirate, Italy. I then got another Rapid Test. Again, thankfully negative. And though my first sights of Italy were through blurry tired eyes at night in the back of van, I woke up refreshed to discover that the lake our hotel was on had two rowing clubs, in addition to the club where the regatta was being hosted. So even away from the venue, I was reminded happily of why I was here.

We started our umpire meetings, which quickly became our ‘bubble’. I was the only Canadian in a collection of umpires from Netherlands, England, South Korea, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. We ate all our meals together on the patio of the hotel. The food was fantastic, arguably the best part of the trip. Lots of pasta and fish. No pizza on the menu, but I did discover a love of Gelato at a small ice cream parlor next to the hotel.

The regatta started slowly with the first days’ heats ending at noon. Technically there was two regattas going on: the World Paralympic qualifiers as well as an International Para Rowing Regatta. Many Paralympic rowers had not competed against boats in their own class in nearly 18 months, so this was a chance for them to get back up to speed.

President of the Jury, Fabio was an excellent and trusting umpire. I was able to attend a dozen positions through the regatta. I was a judge at the start on Friday and on water umpire in the afternoon. On Saturday, I was chief judge at the finish, and then moved to the start in the afternoon. Sunday, I was back on the water, following the races. I was a Static Umpire with a boat driver who spoke no English. But through some google translate we made a reasonable friendship and by the end of our time together we were good buddies. The regatta ran smoothly, even when suddenly bumped ahead three hours. Canada had two boats that did very well, which was awesome to see in person.

We had a last lunch together, all the umpires in our little bubble with most of them boarding flights that evening, some drove home to their various countries. I rented a bike to travel the 28km trail around the lake. It was a gorgeous ride, with tempting stops of bistros, churches and many places to just sit and enjoy the beautiful Italian countryside. For safety, of course, I only stopped twice. That night I had dinner with the other remaining umpire, Kathleen from the US. We started on the patio but moved inside due to torrential downpour. Both of us thankful the regatta had already finished.

The next morning my flight home through Germany was delayed. So, when I arrived in Frankfurt, I had ten minutes to make my next flight. Had to make it from Terminal 2 to 1. It was just like in the movies, I was the guy running through the airport. In my head, worries about what would happen if I had to stay a night in Frankfurt. It would have been lovely, but I’m sure the German government would require some tests and other hoops to jump through. I made it to my gate 5 minutes late. The gate attendant welcomed me by name, because I was the last one to make it. As I sat down, I felt the plane pull away. It had waited just for me.

After a long flight, a series of naps and a Canadian COVID-19 customs visit, I was soon back at my home with my wife, who had to adjust her dream of a two week Italy trip to a two week quarantine with me. We’re cleaning out the basement.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating trip, and though it was mired with obstacles that I’d never experienced at any other race, it was still a regatta. Rowers coming to together to test each other, to push their limits and work as one unit. It had been so long since I had umpired, I was beginning to wonder why I did it. Why I had spent almost two hundred hours on tests and studying to be qualified for an event like this. It came back to me in a flash. And now I’m settled at home, with confidence that it was all worth it. And waiting for the next one.