State recognizes Van Wert official for efforts in cross country

VAN WERT — For 35 years William “Bill” Swank has sacrificed numerous weekdays and weekends to do the task of officiating cross country meets. Enduring the ever changing Ohio weather and having the arduous chore of making sure the rules are followed, Swank did the behind-the-scenes work for the love of the sport.

And while he calls himself a “grunt” when it comes to working these meets, Swank’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. This year he was named Ohio High School Athletic Association’s official of the year in cross country for the 2015-16 year.

Swank was honored at a banquet in Columbus in June that recognized the top officials in each of the 18 high school sports for their outstanding service to the officiating community.

“I was pleased to see it, but it came out of the blue,” said Swank, “I was kind of puzzled about it. I’m just a grunt. I do my job and I have never been one to look for accolade and I enjoy the sport, including track and field, and it just came down. I was rather surprised.”

Getting into the officiating business almost didn’t happen for Swank.

Although he can’t recall memories of specifics, Swank was on the track team in junior high and then at Bluffton High School. In his sophomore year, a coach had Swank run in the Northwest Conference mile race, the first time he said he had ever run that distance, and he finished second.

Swank would compete in the 880 but not fair as well, however, in his senior year, the two-mile race was introduced and Swank excelled enough to make it to state in 1966.

Despite his love for track, Swank coached football from 1972 through 1982 at Colonel Crawford and Van Wert. He did get involved in the coaching of track in 1977 when he was offered the position of assistant track coach at Van Wert. He accepted and then found himself in charge of the squad when the head track coach left for California.

Swank handled the duties for two years, said he had some success, but realized coaching track was not for him and stepped aside.

However, Swank’s relationship with track and cross country continued in 1981 when the school’s athletic director approached him with an offer to officiate meets because it became mandatory to have a certified official on site for all of the meets and would he be interested.

Swank said he was and told the athletic director to keep him appraised of when he would have to take the test to be certified. Swank got some books to study and prepare for the test.

Several weeks went by and Swank had not heard from the athletic director.

“I finally went down to his office and I said what is the deal with this track thing and the athletic director said ‘oh yea, let me check.’ He came to see me a short time later and said the test is this afternoon at Bath High School.”

With just hours to cram, and his knowledge of track, Swank passed but admits he didn’t “light things up.”

With that, Swank’s journey into officiating track began and then that evolved into cross country because if a person is certified in track and field the individual is certified in cross country.

After getting several opportunities to get his feet wet, Swank began immersed in officiating and in the 1980s, he said there were a lot more quad and tri meets and some duels during the week and weekends and usually he was the lone official working the meet.

“Usually you are the only official on site,” Swank said. “You cover everything. You are the starter, the referee, the finish judge and you kind of do it all. Most were small and cross country is pretty laid back. The coaches always helped and jumped in and helped manage the scoring.”

The weekly meets soon faded away with a league change that eliminated each team having to compete against each other during the regular season and the majority of competition was relegated to Saturdays.

Swank has sacrificed a lot of Saturdays in his three-plus decades of officiating but does it because of his love for the sport and he points to the efforts of the athletes.

“The thing that I enjoyed as an athlete was the camaraderie with other athletes. Unlike football, wrestling or basketball, you are kind of pounding on each other and trying to get the best of each other. You still are in cross country but it is a little different. It is a little different mindset. There is a lot more ability to respect the ability of other athletes. You are going head to head with those folks and you get it done or you don’t get it done. You either have the talent or don’t have the talent. May be that is the wrong way to put that but the thing is that you may not be the fastest on the team, you are one of those five contributing to the team.”

Swank said he also enjoys the relationships he has developed over the years of being a part of the cross country universe. From the coaches, fans, administrators and athletes, Swank has made plenty of friends.

One point Swank wanted to make is that as an official it is his job to manage the meet, rather than looking to disqualify someone. He wants to make the playing field fair for every one.

“You want to get things done efficiently, fairly and create an environment that kids can enjoy as well as coaches obviously,” Swank said. “I feel we serve kids. We serve coaches. We serve schools by doing those kind of things.”

As part of being an official, Swank must attend periodic meetings throughout the year and each official must take a state rules test which is now done online.

With those responsibilities, Swank must deal with enforcing the rules and he said the toughest part is telling an athlete they have been disqualified.

Swank described the time when he had to disqualify not one but three athletes. It came when a girl, who was in fifth place, fell approximately 100 meters from the finish line. By rule she could not receive assistance. However, the sixth=placed girl, attempted to help her up. They were quickly informed this was a rules violation.

To complicate matters, one of the girl’s teammates who had already crossed the finish line was told by her coach to help her fallen teammate. Again another rules violation. This left Swank with the unenviable task of telling all three they had been disqualified.

“That is one of the disciplines of the sport. You have got to do things according to the rules because if you don’t then there is a penalty,” Swank said. “It is tough to do but over time you kind of steal yourself to the fact that evident and somethings not so much.”

While Swank said this is the downside of officiating, he said he will continue to work those Saturdays helping athletes, parents, coaches and administrators to keep things fair and enjoyable for everyone.

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Dale Gabor, left, the Ohio High School Athletic Association administrator for cross country and track & field, presents Van Wert resident Bill Swank with a certificate honoring him as the official of the year in cross country for the 2015-16 year. Gabor, left, the Ohio High School Athletic Association administrator for cross country and track & field, presents Van Wert resident Bill Swank with a certificate honoring him as the official of the year in cross country for the 2015-16 year.

By Jose Nogueras

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Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468 or on twiter at @JoseNogueras1