USA Volleyball official Pati Rolf will never forget being the lead official in the championship of the 2015 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Cup in Japan.
“I walked out of the tunnel, and those clappers, I almost couldn’t breathe. I actually had to turn around. (World-renowned violinist) Yo-Yo Ma — I love Yo-Yo Ma — and the president of Japan were there,” Rolf recalled.
“And I made the mistake of looking up into the VIP section, and Yo-Yo was there, and I was, ‘Oh, my god.’ Then I looked up into the stadium. I normally don’t have this issue, I normally don’t even hear the stadium, but apparently I had turned pitch white, because (officiating partner Susana Rodriguez Jativa) asked me if I was all right.
“So I went back into the restroom, put some water on my face, and I got myself together in the bathroom, I did my breathing, and we had an incredible game. It was amazing.”
After a historical and momentous 40-year career, 18 years on the international level, Rolf will hang up her whistle after the Tokyo Olympics.
The 58-year old Rolf, currently working at the Volleyball Nations League in Rimini, Italy, will officiate her second Olympics next month. She was part of history in Rio in 2016 when she was the R2 to Rodriguez Jativa of Spain in the men’s gold-medal match, the first all-female gold medal officiating crew in Olympic history, as Brazil swept Italy.
“It gets better with age,” she said by phone from Italy. “There’s no question that the more you get to know your colleagues, it’s just like being a player. The initial years as a high-level player, it’s challenging, but as you get more experience, make more friends, get to know your colleagues, get more maturity, it just ends up being more and more satisfying.”
Mandatory retirement for FIVB officials is typically age 55, but Rolf was granted three one-year extensions, the third due to COVID.
With experience, she said, “You get to know the teams better, you get to feeling more competent in your skills. That’s why it was so difficult to make the decision to retire. I’m having such a great time, and I feel like I’m at my best, performing at my highest level.”
So, of course, are the players.
“It’s a gift that we all get to work with this level of athlete. You look up during the coin flip, and you see the best players in the world. They’re amazing athletes, they’re good people, and it’s hard to grasp that a small girl out of Minnesota has been given the opportunity to officiate in Italy and now Japan.
“The kindness and relationship that you build in the U.S. and across the world really brings everything together. You see kindness throughout the world, it’s really about the people and the diverse cultures. And the game is just a huge bonus on top of that.”
Rolf is also the USA Volleyball director of officials and will continue to serve through 2024 as the NORCECA representative on the FIVB’s Rules of the Game & Refereeing Commission.
“I’ve had a nice career, that was a dream come true. I’m lucky that I got a few extra years out of this. I feel as good now as I’ve ever felt,” Rolf said.
“But it is time to retire. I feel like last year I really wasn’t ready, even though if we had had the games despite the pandemic, I didn’t feel prepared to retire.
“This year I feel like it’s time to move on, there are so few slots, it’s a very narrow pyramid, it’s tall and skinny. There are so few slots that if you don’t retire, it’s not good for everybody else. The only reason that I’ve got to do these amazing events is that Patty Salvatore retired and I remember asking her after she had done five Olympic Games between beach and indoor, ‘Isn’t that enough?’ and she would laugh.”
Likewise, her retirement and that of others opens doors for a new crop.
“There’s 15 or 16 of us international referees, and I think all of my colleagues have equal skills. It’s a little bit of luck that you can make it to events. It’s an interesting element of who gets to go where,” she said, giving a nod to Ron Stahl, Paul Albright, and Kevin Cull. “We’ve all recently retired, and now a new crew gets to come in, and that will be great.”
While Rolf is excited for the Olympic opportunity, she’s disappointed that the majority of enthusiastic fans will be absent (organizers announced Monday that it will allow 50% attendance, but Japanese residents only). But she certainly has a personal understanding of the importance of COVID, having lost a brother-in-law and dear friend to the virus.
“The thing about the Olympics that’s so amazing, it’s just the feel of it,” Rolf said. “I don’t think that anything can take away the feeling of what’s happening on the court. I’m going to miss the Japanese people in the stands, when you walk out into a stadium with 20,000 people, and those clappers …”
With or without fans, plenty of pressure accompanies the honor of officiating an Olympic match.
“I was jacked up and nervous in Rio. I was nervous, I was really driving, because you want to have your best performance. It’s like you make it to your first ‘A’ tournament, or you make it to your first national championship. There’s a certain feeling that you have. And when you make it to another one, it’s a completely different and I think much better feeling,” she said.
“I’m really excited that I get to do one more as a veteran and enjoy it a bit more. I tell you what, Rio was an event, I loved every minute of it, but I felt like every moment I was on high alert. I’m looking forward to this.”
Rolf, who grew up in Minnesota, grew up playing basketball and softball. Her volleyball career began as a sophomore at Hopkins Eisenhower High School, playing for future AVCA hall of famer Glen Lietzke.
“He was so intense. His hands would be shaking, spit would be coming out of his mouth, which I thought was the coolest thing, he was so jacked up about his little 10th graders. He wasn’t joking around, he had big expectations for us. I remember thinking at the time, ‘I love this guy. I finally have a a coach that loves sports as much as I do, and who actually knows what’s going on.’
“Glen really changed my life, with his passion and his intensity, and I went on to play volleyball and basketball at North Dakota State.”
Rolf’s officiating career began modestly in 1980 with Lietzke’s Minnesota Juniors club team.
“In those days the players reffed the matches, and I remember our coach asking us, ‘Hey, who wants to ref?’ And I’m not dumb, I know that if I ref, that might help me stay on the team, because I was a good player, but not one of the best players, and I remember thinking, ‘If I ref, they’ll appreciate me more.’ ”
No other player volunteered, she recalled.
“So I refereed all the games for my team, and I remember thinking, ‘This is super fun.’ Even at 18, I thought ‘This is a blast. I get to be right in the middle of the court and watch the best teams play.'”
She continued to officiate while in college.
“When I went off to college, it was a great way to make money. I could referee volleyball at the Fargo rec league on Sunday mornings, referee 12 matches in a row. And it was a piece of cake, and I got to be with all these cool volleyball people.
“And I remember this one national referee, Milo Moyano. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you come ref?’ So I did some colleges, I got certified in juniors, and it just snowballed.
“Mylo just took me under his arm, he would pick me up at my dorm room and drive me to games. He was so kind, I remember one time I had two left shoes, it was hilarious. I wasn’t real well put together at times, between going to school, playing basketball and volleyball, running around like a crazy person.
“Milo would just laugh, and say, ‘Hey, let’s ref.’ ”
Rolf, who lives in Colorado with Kent Larson, her husband of 34 years, was 33 when her FIVB career began. She worked both the men’s and women’s matches as a line judge at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when one of the supervisors, Hassan Ahmed, asked her if she wanted to apply to be a FIVB official. By 2003 she was internationally certified and worked her way up the ladder.
Rolf, who resume includes 25 years as a head coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (1988-2001), Marquette (2002-08), and East Carolina (2009-12), was the first woman selected as first referee at NCAA men’s national-championship match in 2019 and was also up for the 2016 NCAA women’s Division I championship match.
She hopes that she could encourage other young girls to referee, something that occurred to her when calling the the Iran vs. Canada VNL men’s match earlier this month.
“(Iranian girls) haven’t seen a woman on the stand in I don’t know how long. Little girls across the world get to see other women officiating major events,” Rolf said.
“We were the first two women to do exclusively a gold medal final in any sport in the Olympic games. That was pretty crazy. It’s always great to represent young girls across the world because it’s an incredible experience for women to be a part of.”
With the 2020 postponement, and early talk of a 2021 cancelation, Rolf sees a different attitude on the VNL court.
“Everybody’s just so grateful to be playing, I’m not normally seeing the pushback from coaches during matches that we usually see. People will be fighting for a gold medal, but I think they’ll also be grateful that they can even play.
“I’m grateful that I can ref. I want to have the best match I can possibly have, but I also want it be a more positive experience for me than the stress I felt in Rio.”
“Rio was a tough, crazy schedule. We were working multiple matches in a day, had transportation challenges, and a lot of prep with daily meetings as well as a psychologist. It’s insane.
“I was on my computer in Rio, trying to get some work done, talking to my husband on Skype, and apparently I passed out. I tipped over but my hands were still on the computer.“
Eventually Kent woke her up after a brief nap.
“I remember hearing a voice, hearing my name, and I opened my eyes. I don’t have narcolepsy, but my husband Kent said, ‘Oh my God, I thought you died, but then I saw you twitch, so I let you take a nap.’
“At Rio, I felt like a machine, but the prep was tough.”
After a long career, “The most significant remembrance I have, the most important, is the kindness that I was shown by my referee friends.
“My husband once told me, ‘Pati, you could ref with someone for three days, and they’ll become one of your best friends.’ And that is so true with officiating. During my most difficult times, my officiating friends have always been there. It’s the people that matter to me.
“And then I get to be at the best games in the country and the world, and who wouldn’t want to do that? And they pay me to go, that’s what blows my mind. That’s just crazy.”
Two other USA Volleyball officials will be working the Olympics. Brig Beatie, an FIVB international beach referee since 2009, will work the beach Olympics. Christina Fiebich, who earned her World ParaVolley international patch in 2016, will work the Paralympic Games.