Perfect timing

Scoring system highlights SMI’s ability to organize, innovate

Rebecca Preston can laugh about it now. Well, sort of.

The 1,790 swimmers at last weekend’s 35th annual Smoky Mountain Invitational swim meet contested more than 800 races over two days at Alcoa’s Springbrook Pool, with a pair of fierce, summer thunderstorms washing out the final eight events. Broken down by swimmer, that meant better than 5,000 finishing times to be entered in the meet’s computer.

It’s all done electronically now, with a touch pad in each lane wired directly to a bank of poolside laptops. Eventual champion Village Green knew exactly where it stood, race by race, through the 78 events swam.

It’s a sweet system. Preston, the meet’s head timing judge and an electrical engineer by trade, installed the software herself. Oh, how she would have loved to have had such a system 10 years ago.

The Maryville/Alcoa Flying Dolphins co-sponsor the meet with the Maryville/Alcoa/Blount County Parks & Recreation Commission. Ten years ago, Preston began her first stint as Dolphins president and meet director. The meet, a marvel of organization on its face, had long since entered the electronic age, just not all the way. Times were kept by hand at poolside, with results then typed into the meet’s computer.

Preston said it took one summer to begin looking for a better way.

“They used to have a room full of people typing in times,” she said. “I said, ‘I am determined to make this work. I am not going to type in 4,000 (finishing) times.’”

This was a project the whole family could get behind. Joe Preston, Rebecca’s husband, was a chemical engineer at Alcoa. Their children — Andy, a sophomore at Georgia Tech majoring in mechanical engineering, and Brittany, a freshman there this fall with an interest in industrial design — both swam for the Dolphins and had a seeming natural affinity for anything innovative.

By her third year as meet director, Preston had the new system up and running, and it wasn’t just good; it was groundbreaking. It proved so good, the Greater Knoxville Area Interclub Swimming Association city championships, which will attract better than 2,000 swimmers to the University of Tennessee’s new Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center in two week’s time, eventually hired Preston to install and run the system at its meet as well.

“People were amazed the times started coming out so fast,” Preston said.

Current Dolphins vice president David Lazar, who assumed co-directorship of the meet a year ago along with president David VanderVeen, said it’s hard to overestimate the contributions of the Prestons and others like them through the years.

“How can I put this?” Lazar said. “I think she’s not only the lifeblood of the Smoky Mountain Invitational, but GKAISA meet as well.

“A lot of people don’t understand what it takes to put one of these meets together. She’s up days and nights. They make a great team, and they are really proud of the Dolphins and dedicated to the team.”

Planning for the meet kicks into high gear in May, when the 36 coaches who will bring teams to the event receive entry forms, on which they include the names of swimmers who will attend, the event(s) each plans to swim and their fastest times, for seeding purposes.

A regiment of 300 parent volunteers is then put in place, all reporting to the head clerk of course and his or her assistant on meet day. There’s a card sorter, who arranges index cards in the clerk’s tent to assign swimmers in the respective lanes. There are yellers in the tent, who direct swimmers to those cards. From lane sheet distributors, to runners, to spotters, to guides, to seaters — who walk younger swimmers from the clerk’s tent to the pool deck — it takes a lot to make it all go.

The Dolphins had 70 parents volunteer for the weekend, with parents from participating teams throwing in as well.

“It’s an amazing coordination of efforts,” VanderVeen said.

Readying the pool for Saturday’s meet start begins Friday morning before Springbrook opens to the public. That’s when tents begin going up. After close, the lane barriers are installed and a practice session for the Dolphins 220 swimmers is held.

VanderVeen said everything was in its place by 11 p.m. Friday. By 5:30 the following morning, he was back at the pool, with Lazar arriving soon after. The next 48 hours, Lazar said, are largely “controlled chaos.”

“It’s a 48-hour adrenaline rush,” he said. “It really is.”

“The pace kind of keeps you going,” VanderVeen said.

Like the Prestons and other volunteers, Lazar has a vested interest in the meet. Daughters Malorie, 12, and Olivia, 8, are both Dolphins. Their older sister, Hannah, worked the meet as a life guard for Parks and Rec. Wife Beth is a former Dolphin president.

“We have tremendous parents,” David Lazar said. “They come out and they spend the whole weekend with us.”

Some, long after the children have completed their eligibility with the Dolphins, never leave the program.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” Preston said. “It’s a part of my life. It’s a big part of my life.”

The meet would likely grind to halt if parents like the Prestons and former director Kay Gibson left the program with their children, VanderVeen said. There are no plans to leave, Joe Preston said.

“It’s fun working with the people and the organization,” he said. “It’s a special type of person that volunteers for something like this.”

Rebecca’s introduction of the touch-pad timing system did wonders to ease the grind of the meet on parents and other volunteers.

“We’ve only got six lanes to work with,” Joe Preston said. “We’ve got to run a meet that’s just clockwork precision or we’ll just kill our workers.”

Technology isn’t the only thing to bring about innovation at the meet. One of its signature sights is that of young swimmers, each holding onto the same long rope, making the walk from the clerk’s tent together to the starting blocks. The ritual once entailed a march from the far end of the complex, a trek of some 70 yards.

Saturday, Dolphin administrators decided to move the clerk’s tent only a few feet from the pool deck.

“Kay and I work with hand signals now,” Joe Preston said.

The meet endured a four-hour delay because of Sunday’s downpour, but few, if any, teams bailed. From the biggest clubs to the smallest, all huddled beneath their tents to wait it out.

“We almost got it done,” Joe Preston said. “If that (second) storm would have been an hour later, we would have made it.”

From the sheer mass of humanity that streamed through Springbrook’s gates over the weekend, and the organized fashion in which they did, a powerful argument could made the Dolphins’ legion of volunteers did exactly that.

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