By Rachel Lutz//Contributor | Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Jay Thomas is the newest recipient of the Kenneth J. Pettigrew Award, presented at the annual convention by the Officials’ Committee. It’s an award that dates back to 1977 and first honored a man who dedicated more than 30 years to swimming.
“I look at the people on the list that have been presented the award, and many of those were my mentors. I’m honored to be on the same list as they were,” Thomas said in a recent interview.
The chair of the Officials’ Committee asks for a list of nominees each year. Oftentimes, the nominees come from various local swimming committees or winners of the officials’ excellence award, given out every other month. The committee is often well-acquainted with the nominees, and they put it to a vote.
This year’s winner, Thomas, swam on summer league teams growing up and continued to swim open water events and compete in triathlons during his time as a pilot in the U.S. Navy. He started his kids in swim lessons as soon as he could – they were just 1 and 3 years old at the time. His journey as an official began as a swim parent, once his kids graduated to the junior team at the club. He eventually rose to the level of club president.
Once the South Florida club’s pool renovations on two 50-meter pools were finished, they held meets, except they didn’t have any officials. Thomas – who was then acting as the computer operator – and a group of 10 to 15 swim parents were certified as officials together.
The proudest moment of Thomas’ career as a swimming official was serving as a judge at the Olympic Games in Rio during the summer of 2016 – but don’t ask him about it, or he’ll “start bawling.”
“It’s a very emotional thing, so many amazing experiences,” Thomas said. “When you see it on TV, it’s an amazing spectacle. When somebody splashes, you’re getting splashed. When you watch the vignettes [on TV], the specialty pieces that they do on the athletes, you’re sitting there right next to them. You experience it. You feel it, you smell it. It’s very special.”
Despite his front-row seat to the biggest swimming competition in the world, Thomas still has a passion for watching the sport grow.
“I still do local events. I still love doing 8-and-under meets,” he said. “The joy of those kids, the wonderment in their eyes. They’re a heat winner for the first time.”
He was also recently notified that he’ll be the head referee at the men’s Division I NCAA Championships in March 2019.
“Some of the best competition in the world,” Thomas said of the meet. “If they swam long course, it’d probably be the deepest meet in the world. It’s a great honor.”
His love of the water isn’t limited to chlorinated pools, though. When he lived in Florida, he lived on the edge of the Everglades and set out to explore the area. He built a kayak (he’s since built another kayak, plus a canoe) and paddled it solo across the Everglades.
“The first four days, I didn’t see another human,” he said of the remote path he set out on. “Your typical day is you get up before the sun gets up, you have to break camp, pack up, feed yourself, paddle your X number of miles – usually between 8 and 15 miles a day to your next destination. 100 percent of your time is consumed with surviving.”
The trips usually take place this time of year, so the daylight is limited. It still provided Thomas with lots of time to reflect and meditate, which he said made for a fun trip.
Thomas said he never expected this new accolade, but it was an honor all the same.“Never ever thought I would get this recognition or to be able to officiate at this level – just trying to contribute to my kids’ sports,” he said. “Enjoyed it, and enjoyed mentoring other young officials. I hope I can help them like my mentors helped me.”