Jill Vernon

By David

There are some very good officials in the sport of swimming. I’ve known a few. I’m not going to list them here. Lists always miss the person who should be included. Instead I want to tell you of four very good ones and in no particular order.

First there is Jay Thomas from Florida in the United States. He’s been an official at some of the world’s biggest swimming events. He is also a Captain for American Airlines. He flies their huge jets out of Fort Lauderdale to South America and Europe. On a stormy night, with lightning all around, if you are on an American 757 struggling to get into Fort Lauderdale Airport, you will be fortunate indeed if Jay Thomas is up the front, responsible for getting you home. I have no idea what it would take to excite this man. I’ve tried. Like most coaches, I’ve aggressively accosted the Meet Referee when some disaster has befallen one of my swimmers. My excitement was wasted on Jay Thomas. His calm manner demanded that I settle down. It is impossible to argue with his reasonable replies. His pacific style makes your tantrums look a bit pathetic and a touch silly. Without speaking a word he expects good behavior. I guess it all comes down to respect.

Then there is Arch Jelley. He’s the guy who shared with me the coaching duties involved in helping Alison become one of the world’s best middle distance runners. He also coached Sir John Walker to world records and an Olympic victory. And he was President of Athletics New Zealand and Head Coach of numerous national track teams. In the 1979 World Cup finals in Montreal, Arch was the National Coach. I was upset that Anne Audain had been selected to run the 1500 meters when Alison was running far faster and had just set a New Zealand record for 1000 meters. A record that, 32 years later, still stands as the fastest time run by a New Zealander. I was so incensed with Athletics New Zealand I threatened to stop Alison going to Montreal. Arch quietly called me in London and gently asked for my trust. I took Alison to the airport. A week later she ran the 1500 meters in Montreal. I guess it all comes down to respect.

For many years Beth Meade was one of New Zealand’s most charismatic and successful swimming officials. She was also my coach for ten years. A week ago I told the story of how two Gisborne clubs censured Basil Dynan, the HBPB President, for using his annual report to convey his petty spite for my daughter, Jane’s, swimming achievements. It was Beth Meade who moved the AGM motion demanding Dynan withdraw his report. Gary Martin from Enterprise seconded the motion. It passed with a healthy majority. On that occasion Beth Meade supported my position. But that was not always the case. On many occasions she would say, “David, I was telling you off when you were sixteen, don’t think you’re so important I can’t do the same thing now.” She was strong. She was honest and she was fair. I guess it all comes down to respect.

The quality shared by these officials is the respect that comes so naturally when you meet a person of class.

Jill Vernon was one of those. Jill Vernon died last week in Auckland, New Zealand. She was just 53 years old. On the Auckland Swimming website you can read a marvelous obituary that details her achievements in the worlds of helping the disabled, Girl Guiding and swimming. I recommend you take a look at the Auckland obituary. It describes a wonderful life; a life of hard work, service and outstanding achievement.

Possibly a little selfishly, here on Swimwatch, I would like to describe how I felt about Jill Vernon. Readers will probably realise that as a result of various fights and events such as strip club sponsorships and opposition to Jan Cameron even my friends describe me as “controversial”. A relation recently decided “eccentric” was more applicable. My enemies are not so kind. A Hawke’s Bay official, called Gwenda Cowlrick, once told a friend of mine that I was “that horrible man.” I’m not sure how she knew. I’ve never spoken to the woman.

Anyway as a result of all that stuff, the majority of swimming people I meet have made up their minds. They bristle with antagonism and reek of suspicion. A Northland swimming club official recently called to say she would like to meet me but could we meet in a downtown Starbucks. She didn’t want to be seen talking to me at a swimming pool.

Jill Vernon was made of sterner stuff. I recall our first meeting because it was unusual. There was none of the distrust; none of the suspicion. She was handing out the snacks and drinks that get distributed at swim meets. She said, “Welcome back to New Zealand, David” and she meant it. You could see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice, feel it in her manner. She was prepared to cut the “controversial” newcomer some slack. That open honesty demands good behavior, requires good manners. You are aware immediately that you have met a person of dignity; a person of genuine class; a gentle woman.

A few weeks later, one of my swimmers was disqualified. I did not agree with the decision and decided to protest the disqualification. Jill Vernon was the referee. She quietly listened to my point of view and softly asked me to wait a few minutes while she consulted the Turns Judge and her rule book. I knew then that, win or lose, whatever her decision it would be fair, it would be honest; it must not be debated. On this occasion she agreed with my protest and reinstated the swimmer. However, that is of little consequence. What is important is the way Jill handled the protest. The sport of swimming is a better place because of Jill Vernon. I guess it all comes down to respect.