EMU Alum Returns from Refereeing in Olympics

After Refereeing In Beijing, City Woman Still Has To ‘Pinch Myself’

By Heather Bowser, Daily News-Record

Perched in the third row of the 91,000-seat Bird’s Nest stadium, Sue Blauch watched as sweat dripped down the faces of 2,008 fierce-looking Chinese drummers.

For nearly 10 minutes, the legion pounded red, glow-in-the-dark sticks into huge drums with perfect synchronicity. It was intimidating, she said. It was perfect. It was beautiful.

"To watch those drummers that close, that was amazing," Blauch said. "And they kneeled for 20 minutes before they ever started. They stayed perfectly still. It’s hard for me to imagine anything like it."

Sue Blauch, EMU alum and Olympics referee
Sue Blauch, 43, of Harrisonburg, returned home this week from Beijing, where she refereed seven Olympic women’s basketball games, including the bronze medal game. (Photo by Michael Reilly)

Two hours later, after Blauch watched 13,000 more Chinese men and women perform in the artistic segment of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, nearly 10,500 athletes marched into the stadium, only yards from her seat. The president of the United States and the first lady, she later learned, were sitting 10 rows behind her.

Blauch was no ordinary spectator. She was on the job.

The 43-year-old Harrisonburg woman was one of about 30 referees chosen from around the globe to officiate men’s and women’s basketball at the Olympics. She was one of only two American refs and the only woman in the crew.

After the games wrapped up more than two weeks of competition on Sunday, Blauch returned to the Friendly City toting all the memories of the sports, her job and that first night in Beijing.

"Sometimes, I have to pinch myself," Blauch told the Daily News-Record in an interview in her home on Chestnut Drive. "Did I just do that? Did I just go to the Olympics? I’m a very ordinary person and I’ve gotten to do some extraordinary things. It doesn’t quite seem real; it’s amazing."

The daughter of Harrisonburg residents Dale and Miriam Blauch, the "ordinary" girl grew up in Short Gap, W.Va., and later transferred to Eastern Mennonite High School in Harrisonburg. A few years later, in 1986, she graduated from Eastern Mennonite College, now University.

She had a basketball in her hands the whole time.

Eventually, her love of the sport pushed her toward officiating and, from there, she took off. For the last 18 years, Blauch has worked her way up as a referee for women’s amateur, college, professional and international basketball. She regularly works games all across the United States and has traveled abroad several times for major competitions.

Blauch’s journey to the Olympics began in February, when a committee of higher-ups from USA Basketball nominated her for the honor. She was selected from about two dozen American referees the committee had to choose from.

Although Olympic refs don’t get paid for working the games, her travel, accommodations and food were paid for by USA Basketball and the international Basketball Federation.

The honor of being a ref in the Olympics is generally given to officiators only once.

Work And Play

On Aug. 1, after 18 hours of flying, Blauch landed in China and hit the ground running. (Her luggage, unfortunately, wouldn’t arrive from Canada, where she departed, for a few more days.)

About a day after touching down, Blauch left to officiate three games in the Diamond Ball tournament in Haining, China. The event was a preliminary tournament for the Olympics.

On Aug. 9, the day after the opening ceremonies, the real work began.

"The Olympics have a different feel because when the players are competing for their country, there’s a different level of intensity," she said. "But there’s still a certain level of respect for the refs."

About 10 minutes before each game, the announcers introduce each player and then both national anthems are played. Next, the teams and referees exchange gifts.

Referees in international basketball often exchange gifts at all big meets, typically giving each other pins. In the U.S., Blauch works for the WNBA, so she brought novelty items and socks stitched with the league’s logo to give.

Over the next two weeks, Blauch officiated seven games, culminating with the bronze medal game between Russia and the host Chinese team.

In the evenings and on her six days off, Blauch and her ref friends soaked up China and its culture, touring Beijing and surrounding areas. They saw the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Silk Street and various temples and attractions in between.

"I became very, very good at charades," she said. "And I ate a lot of kung pow chicken."

She did not, however, taste any of the exotic snacks, such as the famous scorpion-on-a-stick.

"I wasn’t that adventurous," she said.

The Road Home

Blauch’s adventures came to a close on Sunday as she left China and returned home. She arrived in Harrisonburg early Monday morning and has spent the last few days adjusting to life after the Olympics.

On Tuesday, she will jump back into the saddle and ref a WNBA game in Washington, D.C. She’ll work five more games over the next two weeks.

"As long as it’s fun and I’m healthy, I’ll keep going," she said.

For now, though Blauch will spend the weekend enjoying the companionship of her close family, two labs and friends.

"This was the chance of a lifetime," she said.