The Olympics are the ultimate honor for any referee, just like athletes. When the Summer Olympics in London start on July 27, Colorado's Dan Apol will be living the dream. The 40-year-old is the sole beach volleyball referee representing the United States.
His 21 years of whistle-blowing experience should help him stay calm in the chair under the weight of the world's eyes. We caught up with Apol to find out what it takes to reach the Olympic level and how he's handling the stress. Sitting on this side of the pond, we'll keep our fingers crossed that we don't see him up in the chair during the finals (he can only ref games the United States isn't playing in).
How did you get into refereeing?
Apol: "I played volleyball in college, and a lot of times I play in tournaments and you have to ref when you’re not playing. Then I started doing high school games for extra money in college and I just kept moving up and up."
There have to be a lot of steps to becoming an Olympic-level referee.
Apol: "We have nine international referees in the United States. You get picked to take a course in some [other] country—and you pay your own way to go. I went in 2004 and passed that. Once you're in that international group, you're eligible to do the World Tour, the FIVB stuff that Misty [May-Treanor] and Kerri [Walsh] play.
Every event you go to you get rated from 10 on down; you get some kind of number. The more events you do, and the better you do, the higher you go. Out of that group, which is maybe 100 refs who work the World Tour event, they have to pick 16 of them [to ref the Olympics]—no more than one from each country. It's very limited."
When did you find out, and what was your reaction?
Apol: "I found out like three days before Christmas. I was in Tennessee at my in-laws. Unfortunately, I was unable to tell anybody. I found out, and I couldn’t say anything, which was probably the hardest secret to keep in the world. I read it on my phone, and my wife was sitting next to me. Trying to get her to keep a secret was probably harder. It was really a shocker, but I also kind of knew it was coming based on the reffing assignments I had for this coming year."
Have you ever reffereed an Olympic match?
Apol: "It's my first time. It's all the same players [I've reffed before], but this is the Olympics. It’s once every four years. I don’t know how many thousands of refs there are trying to get to this point. That’s every referee's goal: to go to the Olympics."
What will your schedule be like?
Apol: "I’ll do one or two games a day. It’s pretty high stress, but its not like a real tournament where we’ll do six to eight games a day. There's only one court. Over there, they’ll evaluate us every match on everything. We get a score on each match and that advances us throughout the whole tournament. We’re not allowed to ref for our own country at all."
There are going to be a lot of eyes on you. How do you handle that level of pressure?
Apol: "It’s pretty nervous. You don’t really want to screw up and to be that guy. It’s a pretty stressful situation, but I’m pretty excited about. That’s kind of how we have to deal with things. If we can't handle the stress, it's going to be tough. This is going to be the biggest stadium they’ve ever had for volleyball at the Olympics: 15,000 seats. It’s really going to be exciting."
How are you preparing?
Apol: "You do a lot of studying ahead of time, preparing ahead to make sure that you know what you should do in any given situation. There’s a rule book of course. There’s a case book that has all kind of things, funny things that happen. You just have to be ready for every little weird situation that happens. If you can get through those without any real conflict, that’s the best thing."
Volleyball seems to be having its moment in Colorado right now. How do you describe the scene locally?
Apol: "It’s such a huge sport here. There are so many people. It's such a big family that it’s really such a good group to be a part of. I'm really excited to represent this group the best that I can."