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Swimming official Margret Heyliger recalls once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience

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Bermudian Margret Heyliger at work at the Olympics as a swimming official

There was actually a third Bermudian involved in competition at the Tokyo Olympics, but Margret Heyliger’s duties as a swimming official required her to play a low-key role.

Officiating at the Tokyo Olympics was a proud accomplishment for Bermudian Margret Heyliger
Margret Heyliger, centre, officiating at the swimming events at the Tokyo Olympics
Margret Heyliger, second from right, officiating at the Tokyo Olympics

Heyliger, the mother of 2016 Olympic swimmer Rebecca Heyliger, was involved in officiating during the nine days of the swimming competition, with two of the days in the call room where she helped check participants’ swimsuits, equipment and even the size and positioning of advertising on their gear.

Margret Heyliger says she never goes to the National Sports Centre without touching the wall containing the name of daughter Rebecca, who competed at the 2016 Rio Games and was a a team-mate of Flora Duffy, Bermuda’s gold medal-winner. Heyliger had her own Olympic experience recently as a swimming official in Tokyo (Photograph by Lawrence Trott)
Rebecca Heyliger's social-media tribute to her mother's dedication to swimming just before the start of the Olympics

“To be an official for the swimming you have to be on the Fina list, and although I am a Fina referee I was not refereeing,” explained Heyliger, whose appointment was made independent of the Bermuda Olympic Association.

“I was doing everything but refereeing and starting. That meant judging, being in the call room, anything but timekeeping, making sure they were doing the strokes properly.

“There are various rules for each particular stroke and we had to make sure that the swimmers did the stroke properly. Depending on the stroke, they have to touch the wall in a certain way, they have to turn in a certain way and finish in a certain way.”

Heyliger admits her functions would not be recognised by the average person watching the sport, in this case on television because spectators were banned from the Games owing to the Covid pandemic.

“I had somebody say to me, ‘oh, you’re a judge, what do you do, time keep?’ she explained. ”No, it was way beyond timekeeping. Actually, at the Olympics there are no timekeepers; it’s all done electronically.

“For the Olympics and most of the world events, there would be two referees, two starters and then you would have 16 turns judges and four stroke judges. I was a strokes judge, turns judge and was in the call room — everything that the referee and starter wouldn’t do.

“In the call room they make sure swimmers have the right suits on, that they know which lane they are going to be in. I wasn’t a referee this time; it was too high-level a meet.”

It was an experience that can be enjoyed only once, she explained. “You are only allowed to do the Olympics once, and it’s a great honour to be chosen by your peers and other people who have seen you around the deck, especially refereeing,” she said.

“It’s a real big pat on the back, for them to say ‘we respect you, you have a lot of integrity and that’s what we want at the Olympics’.

“It was very restrictive, we had a lot of rules to follow, had to be tested every single day. Just getting into Japan was a lot of paperwork, a lot of things to do. But once you were there, because of all the restrictions and all the rules you had to follow, you felt very safe.

“It was a good experience. Every time I do an international event I learn something new. In this case it was how they have evolved with using authorised cameras. For the Olympics only the referee can do the protests.”

Through Fina she has officiated at the Youth Commonwealth Games in Bahamas, where she was a referee, as well as at the CAC Games and Carifta Games.

It was a long way from Bermuda where Heyliger started getting involved in the officiating side after Rebecca grew more serious about swimming.

The swimming officiating kept Heyliger busy, only barely able to take in Flora Duffy’s gold-medal performance in the triathlon two weeks ago.

“We were not allowed to go outside of the hotel, except to get on the bus, go to the swim venue and come back,” she said.

“We weren’t even allowed to go outside for exercise, not even to the opening ceremony. Not at all!

“For Flora, I had her race pegged from the beginning and started watching it in my hotel room, and stayed there for as long as I could. She was just starting her cycling when I had to get on the bus.

“When I got to the pool was when I found out she had won. At the pool I had so many people come up to me and congratulate Flora through me.”

She said the lack of crowds at the Olympics took some getting used to, as it was a Games like none other because of Covid.

“There have been a lot of records broken and you would think that the athletes feed off the crowd to get their adrenalin going to get that record,” she stated.

“There are a lot of new records, not only in swimming, but other sports as well.”

Heyliger said there were about 100 officials just for the swimming competition, some she had known from previous competitions. “I made some new friends and saw some old ones who I see in my travels in the Caribbean,” she said.

“It was good to see the swim official family again. I have been to almost every single Carifta Games; that’s where I got my start with Rebecca, who went to her first one when she was 12.

“I went then as team manager but when she aged out of Carifta, that’s when I started going to Carifta and CCCAN as a swim official, judge and referee,” explained Heyliger, whose oldest daughter, Kristin, was also involved in sport — in gymnastics and briefly in athletics.

Both daughters give back to their sports, with Rebecca coaching young swimmers in Denmark, where she now lives and is married.

“You only get to do the Olympics once, so now I’m going to continue doing Carifta, CCCAN, CAC Games, Pan Am and Commonwealth Games and try to do another worlds,” Heyliger said.

“I haven’t finished.”

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Published August 10, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated August 11, 2021 at 8:05 am)

Swimming official Margret Heyliger recalls once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience

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