BUDAPEST – Great stories abound at the 19th FINA World Championships, and some of the best ones come from the legions of people wearing green shirts. The emerald t-shirts mark the volunteers, and there are more than 1,000 of them – approximately one for every two athletes competing over the next two weeks. Their roles are rarely glamorous, yet they’re so quirky that they’re automatically memorable – and vital. On Saturday afternoon, about 30 of them had a chance to swap stories with two Olympic swimming champions: Anthony Ervin (who once worked as a volunteer himself – unintentionally), and Netherlands’ Ranomi Kromowidjojo.

Afterwards, FINA asked both Olympians for their best volunteer stories and chatted with several workers about what, how, and why they do what they do.

Zsofia Eva had only a few minutes before she dashed off to be “a medallion hunter,” which she described as “one of a few people who are responsible to collect the winners to be sure that they arrive at the awards ceremony in time.”

It was her first time in that role, but eight months ago, Eva volunteered at the 2021 FINA Swimming World Cup in Budapest, where she escorted swimmers who had been selected for doping tests to the testing site.  

While athletes don’t always remember particular volunteers, volunteers don’t always recall each athlete they encounter, either. The connections can be indelible nonetheless. Eva said, “I was sharing with the winner cat photos and videos. Both of us were big cat fans. It was an American girl, for sure. I don’t remember her name but she had a beautiful British shorthair cat, just like me.”

Karoly Zoltan Nemeth, a 25-year-old university student, is volunteering for his third swimming event in Budapest – each time as “a flag mover.” He and his counterpart across the pool are charged with holding up a string of flags five meters from the wall in the backstroke and medley events so the supine swimmers can determine when to initiate their turns. A second pair of volunteers hold the flags at the other end of the pool. The “moving” takes place when they have to get rid of the flag when they’re not needed. At Saturday’s prelims, it meant moving the flags three times between nine events.  

Nemeth said that by now, “We know where to stand because the last five meters of the lane markers are red,” so their marker is where the red begins. Nemeth said he had never inadvertently held the flags crookedly, but one time, a TV camera came within millimeters of the back of his legs, forcing him to morph into an S shape.  “If I hadn’t done this move,” he said, “I’d hit the camera and the broadcast company is blowing up.”

Petra Takacs, 15, was working her second stint at accreditation. She volunteered because her whole family is into swimming, including her brother Tamas, who competed for Hungary in the Tokyo Olympics and her father, Imre, a national team coach. On Saturday, she was allowed to take her normal shift off in order to watch her brother compete in his lone event at the world championships, the 100m breaststroke, where he finished 28th. She explained the hiring process, saying “We could choose what job we want to do. I chose accreditation as my first choice. It’s not popular because you can’t watch the race, but I wanted it because I can meet a lot of people and practise my English.”

One or two years ago, while volunteering at a swimming event at Duna Arena, Takacs said, “I was really into my job and didn’t pay attention to who comes because I have to ask the same questions. I asked the person in front of me, “Where are you from?” He said, “Russia.” I said “Okay, great. What’s your name?” He said, “Vladimir, and I kept looking at him because half of the Russians are called Vladimir. And then he said Morozov, and it’s a pretty big name. I felt so embarrassed that I didn’t recognize him.”

Takacs said the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and 20-time short-course world championship medalist was nice about it. “Of course!” she said, “He kept a poker face the entire time.”

As for Ervin, who won Olympic gold in the 50m freestyle at age 19 in 2000 and again, at age 35 in Rio – his volunteer job pre-dated the high-tech era.

“I was 11 and I was a runner at a swim meet in Long Beach, California. The timers would have stopwatches and write down the results of the watches on paper cards. I’d collect the time cards for each heat and bring them to the meet director.”

Ervin never dropped one or did anything catastrophic per se, but said, “It was a catastrophe that got me [that gig]. It was disciplinary. I went to an all-star meet in Seattle and was stupidly playing with fire and burned a little hole in the bedsheets. I was sent home when it was discovered. I went before a disciplinary panel and they said, ‘You’re going to do community service.’ And that was my first exposure to the dry side of the sport. But from that, I developed relationships with officials,” including some that he still contacts regularly.

Now 41, Ervin still volunteers in the swimming world. He may not be corralling medalists or holding flags, but he serves on USA Swimming’s Board of Directors and The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athlete Advisory Council. Both positions, he said, are unpaid.

But if someone in Budapest suddenly threw Ervin a green shirt and asked him to work a shift, he said he would probably carry the basket of clothes each swimmer puts in a bin before the race “because you see the last expression on the athlete’s faces as they go out. I’ve never known what that’s like. I don’t know what my own face looks like [before a race].”

The worst job? “Maybe if you’re the volunteer at the end of the race to see perhaps the shattered dreams,” Ervin said, then paused, adding “ – but then you also see the champion, and you could put those two things together. You can hold them side by side: the crushed dream and the glorious victory. As an athlete, you experience one or the other, but if you’re a volunteer there, you get to witness them both.”