Critical of the way referees do their job, he becomes one himself



John Leidlein once threatened to push Michael Phelps into the water.

More about that later.

Leidlein, an energetic 78, has been officiating swim meets for 35 years, nearly year-round, at a variety of venues: summer country club leagues, the Detroit Boat Club (swim chairman), the Mid-American and Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic conferences, at Wayne State, at Eastern Michigan.

For the last 20 years, he’s been responsible for assembling a crew of officials for the Catholic League’s boys and girls championship meets, a task he volunteered to do when Tom Rashid was CHSL director and has kept on doing for current director, Vic Michaels.

“I love the association with the kids,” he says. “My biggest thrill is I’ve had the opportunity to witness five athletes who qualified for the Olympics.”

A graduate of East Grand Rapids High School, where he didn’t swim, Leidlein’s introduction to the sport came when he was a freshman at Western Michigan. “I heard the coach was looking for a helper, so I took the job.”

At about the same time, Western opened a new pool. “Little did anyone know, but during a dual meet, we found out that the contractor hadn’t built the pool correctly. So me and another guy had to hold a rope across the pool, and the judges had to guess who crossed it.”

A similar situation occurred years later at Eastern Michigan in a meet with Michigan. The lanes were nearly 5 yards too long. Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals — wasn’t eligible to swim for U-M because he was swimming professionally.

Phelps and Leidlein stood on an inflatable pontoon bridge at one end of the pool to cover the discrepancy. “We were jumping and laughing. I almost threw him in. I told him that if I went in, he’d have to save me.”

To learn how John got into officiating, we have to bring in his wife, Alexandra. In June, they will be married 56 years. He worked at Detroit Diesel from 1964 to 2001. She taught at Gesu for 21 years, was principal at Christ the King for four years, and taught at St. William in Walled Lake for 10 years.

A self-described “sports nut,” Leidlein, while watching TV, would vent his exasperation about the awful job in his estimation the referees were doing.

Her advice: “Instead of yelling at them all the time, why don’t you go be one yourself?”

He did. Football, at first, “but I had to give it up. I had foot problems.”

Swimming became an integral part of life in the Leidlein household. Their four sons all attended Detroit U-D Jesuit, and were on the swim team. John III, Edward and Andrew each qualified for the state tournament their four years.

Their fourth son, Brian, lasted three days his freshman year. “He didn’t care about getting up at 5 in the morning for practice,” John laughs, “and went out for football instead.” Brian was a walk-on punter at Miami of Ohio his freshman year.

John and Alexandra have been blessed with 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A belated salute to …

Four winter Olympians had a connection to archdiocesan schools:

  • Megan Keller, a defenseman for Team USA’s gold medal women’s hockey team, attended Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington.
  • Speed skater Jessica Smith-Kooreman, 34, was Team USA’s oldest short track skater in 20 years. She is a 2001 graduate of Allen Park Cabrini High.
  • Snowboarder Kyle Mack attended Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice High School his freshman, sophomore, and junior years (2011-14). He won a silver medal in the “Big Air” snowboarding finals.
  • Genevieve Lacasse, a native Canadian who graduated from Bloomfield Hills Marian in 2008, was a goalie on Canada’s hockey team that won a bronze medal.

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected]