Feature by Tyler Remmel
ASHLAND, Ohio, June 29. AT any given meet, you will see that person hiding out behind the timing computer. They're there so often that you probably don't even notice their presence anymore.
The fate of many meets is in their hands, though. In Ashland, Ohio – home to Ashland University and Ashland High School – the man who has had his nose in front of that Colorado Timing Systems display for the past 23 years is Mike Udolph.
By day, Udolph works in the sales department of National Patent Analytical Systems, a company that produces gadgets that do everything from checking blood alcohol concentrations to warning bus drivers if a child is in the "danger zone."
Udolph is 60 years old, is happily married, and has two sons, Steve, 31, and Greg, 29. Both graduated from Ashland High School. Both were swimmers.
Like most swimmers, Steve and Greg got started at an early age, swimming for the local YMCA team. And like most swim parents, Udolph became frustrated with all the downtime during meets.
"When your son is 8 years old and he swims one race for 30 seconds and you sit there for six hours at a YMCA meet, you get bored stiff," he said. "When they asked if anyone wanted to work the timing system…I said, ‘Well gosh, I've got nothing to do!'"
That was in 1988, and he's never stopped doing it since. From 1988 until 1994, Udolph only ran the system at YMCA meets. After that, he started running the timing system for AHS and AU as well. Today, he is the only person in Ashland trained to run the system.
With as many meets as he's taken in from the balcony over the years, you'd assume that he's pretty fond of the water. That's not so; he's actually terrified of the water. He knows how to swim – he even got his "Mile Swim" Boy Scouts badge – but he does his best to avoid going in.
Because of that fear, he encouraged Steve and Greg to get in the pool at a young age.
"They learned how to swim because I'm scared to death of the water," he said. "[We wanted] to make sure that they were not."
His thinking worked, and the two swam all the way through their high school years. He was there at every meet, too, looking on from his perch above.
A lot has changed from those first YMCA meets. For one, the technology has improved tremendously. When he started working the computer, Udolph remembers a time without a scoreboard and without digital readouts, where the results the results of a close race would only be known when the thermal dot-matrix printer spit them out, and he could announce it.
"It was slow…everyone held their breath until I could get the printout to come out," he said. "That was the only way you knew [the times]."
As much as the times have changed, he's also seen swim trends come and go. There was a time when TV wrestling was king, and the infatuation with the WWF (now WWE) wrestlers pervaded even the pool deck.
That was a period where the high school boys team became so enthralled by the wrestlers that they made it a pre-meet ritual to walk out to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's theme song.
"That was a crazy thing to begin the meets with," he said.
Although he's never seen anything quite that crazy from the AU team, he's seen something that has impressed him just as much, watching coach Paul Graham build a winning team from one that was "decimated."
"The team was really a mess when Paul took over," Udolph said.
Since taking the reins in 2000, that transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. Coming from a team that had trouble winning an individual race at dual meets, Graham has built a now-perennial contender in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (both teams were third at the 2011 GLIAC Championships) and at the NCAA Division II Championships (the women were fifth and the men were 11 at the 2011 Championships).
Udolph has had a hand in helping that rise though, even though he may not know it, even though it may not be direct. But having him there at meets takes a lot of stress off the shoulders of Graham.
"[Having Udolph] is a godsend for our program," said Graham. "For us, being a smaller program, we're always looking for ways that we won't be spending money trying to find someone [to run the system]."
"He's very helpful, very reliable, [and] very knowledgeable."
Udolph was especially helpful to a younger Graham, responsible for hosting the 2001 NCAA Division II Championships in Canton, Ohio. Even though AU had a limited number of swimmers competing at the meet, his steadfastness allowed Graham to not worry about whether or not the times would come up on the board without error.
Since Graham started, there have been only two or three meets that Udolph has been unable to attend. That says a lot considering the travel involved in a sales job; just last week, he was in State College, Pa.
As impressive as Udolph's performance has been, he has been just as impressed by the athletes that he's seen over the years.
"I enjoy watching the kids swim because I know how hard they work at it," he said.
The collegiate swimmers, especially the walk-ons – a group that has been so important to the AU team over the years – captivate him more than anyone else. The high school athletes do impress him, but he just has a different sort of admiration for walk-on collegiate swimmers.
"They do it because they enjoy it; you have to respect kids when they do that," he said.
That dedication of college athletes – the willingness to go ahead with a 16x50s warm-down set after a grueling meet – makes those meets a little more enjoyable to him than the high school duals.
This past year, Graham honored Udolph at the annual "senior meet" for his years of service. Udolph insists that it was unnecessary because the team didn't "owe" him anything, but he did appreciate it.
Here's a fun fact: for whatever reason, Udolph has a lot of trouble remembering the names of swimmers on the AU team, while remembering names really isn't a problem for him with the high school teams. His limited – albeit still extensive – contact with the teams on-deck at meets also makes it difficult for him to recognize female swimmers without their caps.
He jokes, "I could walk by five of them and not even realize it."
It's important to note that his help has not been limited to only running the timing system at meets, either. Drawing upon his sales experience and using his personal business, Udolph coordinated a bundle purchase of six Colorado systems and pads for local high schools and organizations.
He knows how to get a good deal. And that's exactly what working the meets is for him.
"It's my one thing that I'm giving to the community…it's that one little thing that I volunteer for," he said.
Udolph says that he plans on keeping it up until he and his wife retire, probably for at least another six years. Like the stereotypical retiree, he dreams of spending his winters in Florida, far away from the harsh darkness in wintry Ohio. The meet entertainment helps him get through it all, though.
"It gives me some reason to not fall asleep in my chair in the winter," he said.