An Homage From An Official: How Erik Vendt Played the Starting Game to Perfection

Sydney Six: Vendt & Phelps

An Homage From An Official: How Erik Vendt Played the Starting Game to Perfection

By Cynthia Millen Roberts

It was at a Grand Prix Meet at the University of Michigan where I observed the full beauty and brilliance of swimming, and it was exhibited so perfectly by a swimmer who did not win a race.

I have been thinking about that swimmer often after the events of this year in collegiate swimming—events which are an anathema and ugly antithesis to everything competitive swimming represents.

I had become involved in swimming when our kids did. What else can a parent do when the meet is too far away to go home between races? It’s one thing if your team is hosting the meet—you work the meet in some way. But it’s different when another team hosts, and you must sit for hours on backless metal bleachers. There are only so many ways you can get comfortable, and not for very long.

After timing a few meets, it was suggested that officiating was the next step, so beginning in 1989, I started, going from mini-meets, to age group, high school, and eventually to NCAA, national meets, and more. I grew to love all parts of the sport and made dear friends who were volunteers like me. Ohio is blessed with a long tradition of great swimming on all levels, and it was two excellent officials there, Al Kurth and Pat Lunsford, who taught me every aspect of the meet. I soon became a Starter, and was fortunate to eventually participate in multiple national and international championship meets, including the Paralympics in Beijing.

Starting most clearly exemplifies the fairness which is built in to every aspect of competitive swimming. The starter’s first job is to make sure that the deck, and all areas of the swimming experience, are ready to provide each and every swimmer the best possible swim.

Are the blocks secure? Are the flags even? Are the speakers working under each block? Are the lane lines even and taut? Are there any possible hazards on the deck? Is there anything which could interfere with the swimmer’s focus at the start?

But that is only one part of a starter’s preparation. There was something more important that followed. My mentors taught me to study the swimmers as they were preparing for other races for which I was not the starter. How did they get themselves ready? Did they have any habitual actions prior to mounting the blocks? How quickly did they get on the blocks, and then what did they do once they were there? What I eventually learned was that the swimmers communicate to the starter and let him/her know when they are ready to start. A good starter reads the swimmers and knows how much time to give them before gently saying the magic words: Take your marks. A great start is one in which every swimmer has gotten that opportunity to relax and has communicated this to the starter.

It’s their race, not mine.

In May of 2006, I was a starter at the Eric Namesnik Memorial Grand Prix in Ann Arbor. The UM pool has always been one of my favorites because of the outstanding staff, excellent facilities, and electric spirit of the place. I knew each inch of the deck well, and always felt very comfortable there. This meet would feature many outstanding swimmers who hoped to make the 2008 Olympic team, so being comfortable was very important.

While off-duty, I watched the swimmers as they prepared to race. I began to notice that one swimmer was watching the starter very intently. He was mentally noting the time between the referee’s whistle which released the swimmers to the starter, the time when the starter called them down with “Take your marks,” and then the subsequent “beep” of the release. He did this consistently throughout the prelims, to the point where he was seeming to predict when the starter would let go. I had seen swimmers do this occasionally, but not as intently as this one.

Soon he was in one of my races. He calmly stepped up on the blocks and waited. When it seemed that everyone was ready, I asked the swimmers to take their marks. I noticed that he was the last to come down, waiting long enough to make the rest of the field begin to question, but not too long that I would call them up. He had hit the sweet spot. When I released the swimmers, he was the first off the block. He was perfectly wound up, not having stayed down too long, but just enough to be precisely ready to spring.

He knew how to control the start. He knew that the last thing a starter wants to do is call up the swimmers (“Stand please”). It discombobulates them and gets them out of their rhythm. So with patience, we will wait for a swimmer to come down, and keep them there to a certain point. He knew exactly how long I would wait, and he used that for his advantage. And he did this every time. With every starter.

It was a thing of beauty to witness. I had never seen such intelligent preparation before, mirrored by his performance in the pool. He was the shortest swimmer in the field, but used every advantage he could to score very well.

Between prelims and finals, I spoke to his coach. Did he realize that this swimmer knew how to control the start? In his own very colorful way, the coach said he wanted to see this for himself.

Starters are trained to block out any surrounding noise or distraction. At UM, the starter has the entire boisterous Michigan/Club Wolverine team to the right, and the warmup pool to the left. They all grew quiet as the final heat of the men’s 400 IM came out. The coach came up directly behind me so that he could see over my shoulder what I saw. All eyes were on Michael Phelps’ 6’7” wingspan as he flapped his arms in his traditional on-the-block prep. Other swimmers were fingering their googles or slapping their arms as usual. When all settled down, and they told me they were ready, I called them down: “Take your marks.” It was not until they were all down and in position, that Erik Vendt, in just the nick of time, came down, and then I had to let them go. The little guy had made them wait perhaps a nanosecond longer than they had wanted, but he got exactly the start he had planned for.

“Well that little (bleep),” Jon Urbanchek hissed.

He shook his head, and began to laugh. He darted over to the other CW coaches, and with his typical animation, explained what he saw to the others. “Do you know what that little (bleep)….”

Erik Vendt didn’t win any individual races that day. He came in third in the 400 IM to Phelps and Robert Margalis. He came in second in the 1500 to Peter Vanderkaay. He would win gold in the 2008 Olympics for his contribution to the 800 freestyle relay team. But as he got out of the pool, with all of the other swimmers towering 6-8” over him, I knew that I had watched the finest swimmer I would ever have the honor of seeing. As he walked by, I stopped him and shook his hand.

I believe, with his twinkling eyes and charming smile, he knew why.

Cynthia Millen Roberts was a USA Swim official, NCAA official, and International Paralympic Official for over 30 years, until she resigned in protest in December of 2021. As a supporter of Save Women’s Sports, she continues to advocate for all athletes to compete fairly in categories based solely upon sex.

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HulkSwim
HulkSwim
2 years ago

That little (bleep) is also the only person to lap me in a 500.

Seth
2 years ago

I didn’t understand the following statement in the article: “ I have been thinking about that swimmer often after the events of this year in collegiate swimming—events which are an anathema and ugly antithesis to everything competitive swimming represents.”

Cynthia Millen Roberts
Cynthia Millen Roberts
2 years ago
Reply to  Seth

A male was permitted by the NCAA to compete against females and ultimately win the 500 free at the Championship Meet in March. That is not only grossly unfair, scientifically incoherent, and denigrating to all women everywhere, but it is an heinous insult to the sport that is so beloved by this official and all the swimmers involved now, in the past, and in future.

Seth
2 years ago

I believe you are putting words into the author’s piece that she didn’t articulate. Also, I disagree with your opinion.

Sean
Sean
2 years ago
Reply to  Seth

Not too bright Seth. She is the author.

Seth
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean

Ha! Well, even though your comment was about my intelligence, and not my attention to detail, you’re absolutely right! That being said, I disagree with the author, although her story about Eric Vendt’s attention to detail was very interesting. I fail to see the connection between Mr. Vendt and Ms. Thomas.

Cynthia Millen Roberts
Cynthia Millen Roberts
2 years ago
Reply to  Seth

Hi Sean
I’m happy to explain.
The theme is fairness in competition.
We go to great lengths to make sure that each swimmer is treated equally. We don’t give any advantage or disadvantage to any swimmer.

As in all sports, bodies compete against bodies; identities do not compete.
Lia Thomas is and always will have a male body and have male DNA, and no amount of testosterone suppression will remove the larger skeleton, heart, lungs, greater number of fast twitch muscles and less subcutaneous fat which he enjoys. The NCAA was wrong to permit him to compete.
Males of any age will always swim 8-12% faster than females, which is why we have always had divisions based upon sex and age.
A male can never be a female. No matter what. That’s just a scientific fact. Imagine, Sean, if a swimmer chose to identify as a paraplegic and decided to compete in the Paralympics—that is analogous to this situation.

Shame on the NCAA, UPenn, USA Swimming (who supported this), and Mr Thomas as well. They all know better. Competition must be based upon sex. Nothing else is fair.

Erik Vendt was one of the shortest male swimmers ever, yet he worked very hard and made the most of his intelligence and body to beat swimmers much larger than him. He did not use an unfair advantage to achieve what he did—just hard work and grit. .

That’s why I thought of him. What an awesome young man!

Have a good day!

Cynthia Millen Roberts
Cynthia Millen Roberts
2 years ago

Sorry, Sean—this was meant to be addressed to Seth!

Bi9kahuna
Bi9kahuna
2 years ago

I love this story. Thank you, Cynthia!

Cynthia Millen Roberts
Cynthia Millen Roberts
2 years ago
Reply to  Bi9kahuna

You are very welcome. Our “swimming world” is full of so many amazing people and stories!

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