Synchro Q&A With Sue Johnson, Olympic Scoring Chair

Sue Johnson Olympics
Sue Johnson has worked at seven Olympics Games. Photo Courtesy: Sue Johnson

By Dax Lowery, Swimming World contributor

Sue Johnson’s love of math, synchro and golf has given her the world. As the Scoring Chair at seven Olympic Games and a longtime volunteer for the United States Golf Association, Johnson has traveled just about everywhere to offer her scoring expertise. Along the way she helped developed scoring programs for synchronized swimming, created scoring forms for the FINA handbook and developed a section of scoring resources for the USA Synchro website. She is a member of the Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame, earned a FINA Certificate of Merit in 2005, and received the Paragon Award in 2013 for her outstanding contribution to the sport.

Where did you grow up and how did you get involved with synchro?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. The country club where my parents belonged had a little synchronized swimming program. We had one meet a summer. I did not know anything about rule books or nose clips or underwater sound or sequins or head pieces. It was a very basic thing. We had figures and routines. I did that from the time I was 10 until about 21, when the other country clubs got rid of the open age groups so my sister (Barb) and I couldn’t compete anymore because we were always winning.

I went to one of the country club meets and I met a woman who was a national judge who told me that there were meets all year round, which I had no idea about. So I went to one of the local meets – this was in 1972 – just to watch and see what was going on. It was kind of crazy because I knew there was some kind of math involved, and I was a math teacher. So I said, ‘I don’t know if I can be of help, but rather than watching, if you need help with something I would be happy to help.’ The guy who was the local scoring chair was trying to phase himself out. So, I got phased in and soon became the scoring chair for the Lake Erie Association. In ’74 our association hosted the senior national meet and I was asked to join the national scoring chair that year. So I’ve been involved a long time.

You’ve worked at seven Olympic Games. What roles did you take on and do you plan to continue working at the Olympics?

If I’m invited, yeah! The first one was Los Angeles, which was where synchronized swimming made its debut (in 1984). What happened was that a man named Harry Johnson, who eventually became my husband, called Dawn Bean, who was the competition director. Harry was the technology venue manager for all of the aquatic sports and he needed to have somebody to run scoring. So when he called Dawn and asked who he should contact, she said, ‘Oh, you need to contact Sue Albrecht, she’s our national scoring chair who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.’ So he called me, asked if I would be interested in running scoring for the Olympics? Yes! Did I know international rules? Yes. Did I have a scoring program that works with international rules? Yes. It was going to be a volunteer Olympics so I would have to pay my own expenses for transportation and a place to stay. So that was how I got involved in 1984.

At that point, I had done several international meets already. I’d actually become national scoring chair in 1975 and I had gone to a Pan American Games and a World Aquatic Games in ’81 and ’82. So I was familiar with the international rules at that point in time.

So in ’84 I was a volunteer for the Olympics. In ’96 in Atlanta I was assistant competition manager in charge of results. Judy McGowan was the competition manager for that one. So I basically went down to Atlanta for two summers and went down for meetings about once a month. So that one I was actually hired by ACOG, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The next Olympics was 2000 in Sydney, Australia, and for that one I was hired by IBM as results system manager for synchronized swimming. And I actually lived in Sydney for two years. At that point in time it was almost like they were recreated the wheel for every Olympic Games. In Atlanta part of my job was designing the scoreboards and what the printouts were going to look like. Starting in 2000 there was something that they put together called ORIS, which stands for Olympic Results Information System. ORIS is still part of the Olympics right now. It’s the bible and there’s one for every sport, which shows pretty much everything: all the procedures, all the scoreboards, all the printouts for results, who gets results, how many copies. Everything is in there. At that point they were just starting to do this ORIS project. All of the results system managers worked together on helping each other with the test events. So even though I was in synchronized swimming I was helping with the test events for canoe, kayaking, rowing, tennis, badminton so you got to know what the other sports were doing that might give you some ideas for other things you could do for your sport. The three of us that were for swimming, diving and synchronized swimming, we became very good friends – we became pretty much a team of our own. I was at every swimming competition and every diving competition either helping them with the print distribution or scoreboard management. And in the same way they were helping me with my events. All of the Olympics after that were ones that the technical committee invited somebody to be the chief recorder for the Olympics. That meant you went as an official – they paid for your expenses but it was not a paid position, per se.

What’s it like to work at the Olympic Games and how have the Games changed since you first worked one in 1984?

Let me just give you an idea. In the 1984 Olympics, my very first one, besides working the synchronized swimming events, I was put in charge of getting the results to the press. So during the swimming events I was sitting in a seat that was right across from the finish line, and I diving I was sitting in a seat right across from the diving tower. After every race or after every round of dives there was this very strange machine at my feet which we now know as a fax machine. What would happen is that this paper would magically appear at my feet and I had a copy machine right beside me, so I would put the paper on the copy machine, figure out how many media members were in the stands that I should make copies for and then went and passed out the copies. That was the print distribution in 1984. Now what happens at the Olympics is that everything is planned ahead of time through ORIS as far as when things become official, who gets results, how many copies they need, where are these results to be delivered, be it the FINA TSSC (Techinical Synchronized Swimming Committee) room or doping control or the Olympic Village or sports information desks or whatever. When I say everything is official, along with the referee, then they basically press a button and printers all over start printing. Then there are runners that will take these stacks and take them to the appropriate places for distribution. It’s more of an automated system at this point.

You received the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Paragon Award in 2013. What did that mean to you and how did you find out you were to receive that award?

I was in a state of shock to be nominated because I know that this is something that’s very special. It’s something that only one person from every aquatic sport is chosen, and it could be from anybody in the world. I will never forget when, at the convention, Judy McGowan was giving out awards and she said, ‘Our nominee for the Paragon Award is Sue Albrecht-Johnson.’ I was speechless. I was absolutely speechless. The thought that I was nominated just totally blew my mind. And then when I found out I was receiving it I was in tears. I was so excited. That was a real thrill. My only regret was that my husband had passed away so he wasn’t there to see me get this, but my sister came to support me.

You’ve also been involved in scoring at professional golf tournaments. How did that come about?

I run scoring central for the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women’s Open and the U.S. Senior Open. I used to do scoring for about 20 tournaments a year. I had started volunteering  locally for golf tournaments, again through the same country club that my parents belonged to. There was a tournament where I found mistakes on scorecards three days in a row that nobody else found. When I first said something to somebody, it was, ‘Ah, dumb female, what does she know?’ So I went to somebody else and I said, ‘This is wrong. You’re paying the top 10 pros and the top 10 teams for the pro-am, but there’s one person who’s not listed who should be and there are two people that are listed in the wrong spot.’ So they decided to humor me and found out I was right on all three and they were wrong. So when this happened, on the third day they kiddingly asked me if I liked to travel, and I said, ‘I love to travel.’ And they said, ‘No, seriously.’ ‘Seriously. I’m single and I love to travel.’ And they said, ‘OK, we need to talk.’ And I said, ‘You know, I live in Cleveland, Ohio, and if you need help with golf tournaments in Florida in February, hey, I can do that!’ What would happen is that I would teach during the week. The Cleveland airport was 10 minutes away from my school and I actually did the master schedule for the school. The principal allowed me to have the last period of the day free. So Friday I would teach and then I’d head to the airport, fly to wherever the tournament was, work Saturday and Sunday, fly back Sunday night and be back in the classroom Monday morning. I started doing that in ’89. I was mostly doing the Champions Tour and the World Series of Golf every year in Akron, Ohio. Our country club hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 1996 and I was the scoring coordinator for that tournament and the USGA was very impressed with what I did and said, ‘OK, can you come and do this for our tournaments next year?’ So that’s how I started doing the golf tournaments. At this point I have worked around 60 Opens for golf.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love to sing. I sang with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus for 18 years. I’ve always been active in my church choir, so singing is a big part of my life. I’ve just always liked every kind of music. It’s relaxing. I love to travel, so between the swimming and the golf I get to travel a lot.

What is it about synchro that you love? How would you describe the sport to someone who doesn’t know much about it?

I love watching it. I first was attracted to it when I saw a demonstration and it was the things that I love. It was combining swimming and dancing and music into a sport. So I fell in love with it. That’s how I describe it when I’m doing talks. I’m involved with my local Rotary and I’ve done a couple talks on the Olympics and synchronized swimming. I just think it’s a great sport. What I try to do is describe some things and then I show some videos and I show just some of the lifts that they do so they get an idea of what is happening above the water and below the water. They’re just blown away by it.