By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator

Samantha Brisson fell in love with rowing as an athlete-turned-umpire in Calgary more than 14 years ago.

Now living in Virden, Manitoba, with lots of experience in the sport, Samantha shares with us why officiating is one of the most fulfilling ways to become or stay involved in a sport you enjoy.

And if you’re thinking about becoming an official, she also talks about how crucial it is to recruit new umpires and why you won’t regret taking that next step to start your officiating journey.


‘The Best Seat In the House’

If you love being in the middle of the competition action, being an umpire really is one of the best ways to take in the sport.

“Sometimes you’re at the start line, sometimes you’re at the finish line. Sometimes you help the athletes get onto the water, and sometimes you get to follow the races. So really, if I’m being selfish, I get the best seat in the house vs. sitting on the stands,” said Samantha.

And even though COVID-19 has impacted rowing over the last year and a half, as it has for all sports, Samantha said the sense of community and ability to see new places has been incredibly rewarding throughout her years as an umpire.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the years. You can pretty much go anywhere in Canada and find a rowing community to connect with,” said Samantha. “I didn’t really travel a lot until I started rowing. But there’s competitions on the east coast, west coast, and there’s just [lots of] opportunities to race. If I wouldn’t have had that, I wouldn’t have been able to travel. And that’s carried into my adult life.”


Recruiting New Umpires

Samantha knows the sport inside and out, but there was a time when she was brand new to officiating. She is well aware now of how important it is for others to take those same steps she took to becoming an umpire.

“I’ve been around the sport long enough both in Alberta and Manitoba, and recruitment is just absolutely vital,” said Samantha.

Starting out, she said it was largely an older, male crowd at the time, many of whom were looking to retire soon.

“Often in sports and communities, or boards, there’s a good group of people that are relied on, because they’re good at what they do. And if you’re not careful, and you don’t have a succession plan for that, that can often get organizations into trouble. So, you want people of all different experience levels. It’s something that should just be constantly flowing, and you should always be honouring the people that have the experience and have been around for a long time, but at the same time, bringing up the ranks for that.”

Samantha is thankful for those who poured a ton of time and energy to train her. And even though it’s been more than a decade, she’s still always learning.

“I love those experiences where I get to learn from the best and absorb that from them.”


Sharing the Knowledge

If you enjoy being part of a community that grows together, umpiring has the potential to be a very heartwarming path in sport.

“I also love being able to teach new officials as well, and be able to mentor the next generation,” said Samantha. “I was 19 when I started and I was working with guys in their late 50s, early 60s. That was so vital and so great, because they’ve seen the sport from, you know, a lot of them remember racing when women weren’t even allowed to race. So just hearing their stories and being able to pass it on to the next generation – that goes back to [how] rewarding [it is]. That history.”

Visiting a club house in Ontario, for example, Samantha recalls it being lined with memories that she could listen to people talk about for days.

“I’m used to being a mentor, but I’m also used to getting mentored as well, and that just doesn’t seem to end. That makes it exciting and very, very rewarding.”


Advice for New Umpires: Remember Why You’re There

Samantha makes a point of consistently reminding herself of how she can provide the best, safest experience for every athlete, no matter who they are.

“Ultimately, we’re there for the athletes. And people tend to forget that. I’ve gone to races where there’s kids who’ve started rowing two weeks prior to that race, and I’ve been at races where it’s national level and people are off to the Olympics. And I treat every athlete the same, regardless of their experience.”

Of course, it’s also about having fun!

“Remember why you’re there. Remember that we’re all there because we love the sport of rowing. [Make it] safe and fun, and that’s regardless of the level. That’s what I always aim for.”


No Ref, No Game
Samantha (second from the right), with her team of umpires in 2019 at the Western Canada Summer Games in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

From attending lots of different competitions and games, such as the Western Canada Summer Games in 2019 as Chief Umpire for rowing, Samantha said those are the times where officials of all different sports can connect and talk about similar experiences and exchange stories. For example, how they’ve overcome obstacles or moments of conflict, and are an integral part of the sport system.

For instance, in order to host a rowing race, or regatta, in Canada, there’s a certain number of umpires that need to be present, along with a thorough regatta plan.

“The biggest thing it comes down to is safety – what is going to provide the best experience for the athletes and keep it safe?” said Samantha.

Without the umpires, all the athletes, coaches, volunteers, staff, and spectators wouldn’t be able to attend any competitions.

She said it’s nice to see a campaign like No Ref No Game spark up this dialogue to the broader community.

“It’s just nice to see that the sport in Manitoba is recognizing [officials by saying] ‘No wait, you guys are important’.”

When it’s all said and done, Samantha’s dedication to umpiring is rooted in her passion for rowing and giving back.

“It’s a beautiful sport and the hope of anybody involved in it, whether it’s a coach, or a parent, or a board member, or an umpire, is that it keeps growing.”

To learn more about the No Ref No Game campaign, visit our website and follow the #NoRefNoGame campaign on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.