Interview with Referee Marte Salmi

Russ Thompson
Water Polo Planet

This month features a friend and colleague, Marte Salmi.  Back in the day Marte and I were working our way up the rankings with Loren Bertocci leading the way.  I have fond memories of working with Marte, Loren Gene Gill and others at Navy and other tournaments.   We share a common circumstance which you will read about later in this interview.  Finding balance in life where officiating is concerned is a challenge for many.  If you endeavor to be the very best it comes at a very high cost and no one knows that cost more than Marte.


I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and I am sure you will too.  Marte, thank you for sharing!





MSTell us a little about what you do vocationally.


For the past 15yrs I have worked for Eaton Corporation (ETN) based in Cleveland, Ohio.  I have held numerous positions within Information Technology at Eaton with increasing responsibility.  I have held many roles which have included an IT Analyst, Project Manager, SOX Auditor, Business Process Assessor, Program Manager, and Business Quality Champion.   In my current role, I work from my home office in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio where I live.  I am a Senior IT Project Manager with a focus on Process Ownership around the Project Management space.  One of the other functions that I perform for Eaton is that of a Campus Manager for recruiting and talent acquisition at Universities here in the Midwest for our IT Internships, Co-Ops, and IT Leadership Development Programs. 


When did you start playing?  Tell us about that experience, your coaches. You told me you are from Miami Tell the readers a little about the Water polo in your neck of the woods.


I started playing in high school in the 80’s in North Miami, Florida where I was born and raised.  We were coached by Kevin Forbes and Calvin Webb.   We were a descent HS team with above average talent but could not compete with some of the larger schools.  We played very hard and in some regards were overaggressive to compensate, myself included.  One of the referees, Dave Tinkham christened us the “thugs” for our style of physical play before it became politically incorrect to use that term.  I recall one late afternoon after a home game, one of the officials spoke to two of my good friends/teammates (Kenny Vigille & Felix Mercado) and I about coming down later that evening to the University of Miami to watch a scrimmage between his team and the Miami-Dade South Stingrays.  Little did I know that this conversation was my first interaction with an icon of Florida water polo and later to become my coach, first referee mentor, and friend, James (Jimmy) O’Neil. 


That evening we saw the game being played at a higher level and I was amazed by the finesse and techniques of the players and how the game is supposed to be played; I was enamored.   After the game, I registered with US Water polo, paid $15 for a 3 month trial membership and was now a part of the North Miami Beach Water polo Club (NMB) with the intent of becoming a better player.  Back then, there were just a few teams in the entire state that played at the open level: Miami Dade South, Orlando YMCA, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa/St. Pete, and NMB.  I have very fond memories and made some really good friends with many players on my team and from the other teams in the state.  Some of these individuals I stay in contact via social media and are still involved with water polo at some level and continue to impact our sport in a positive manner.


Jimmy O’Neil was a daunting man.  Back then I was 5ft nothing, 100lb nothing and standing next to him I felt very small.  He was well over 6’6” and must have been at least 250lbs.  He had massive arms, giant legs, and he was left handed.  When you shook his hand, it felt like your hand was being squeezed by a large vise.  So needless to say when you would play defense against him at 2m (his favorite position), if you got to close and grabbed ahold of you, forget it, hang on for the ride. [Editorial comment:  I found this part funny because if you know Marte – he is a pretty darn big guy – Russ]


Thinking back, those first few months with NMB were brutal.  I recall many times at Victory Pool learning lessons in the water from Jimmy, Paul Becskehazy, Andrew Mueller, Andy Ansen, David Tickham, and Ron Stupes to name a few.  I would come home battered and bruised from the “lessons” I learned that night.  But I still came back, a little smarter and wiser.  This is where I cut my teeth on the nuances of the game, how position meant everything, how to use advantage to your benefit, and where team dynamics were important.  Better yet, they became life lessons.


When did you start refereeing?  Tell us about your experience and your past.


At an NMB practice one late fall evening after graduating from High School earlier that spring, Jimmy asked if I would be interested in refereeing the High School league in Dade County in the coming months.   I said, ”Sure.”  I don’t know what he saw but this was where it started for me.  So one Wednesday evening, I went to a rules meeting at North Miami Beach High School in the Driver’s Education Trailer, paid $10 for the National Federation Rule Book, where we reviewed the rule book cover to cover, and then magically I was transformed into a Referee.  That evening I ordered from Tru-West a collapsible Referee Flag that screwed together (before the use of just hand signals) and a Fox 40 Whistle.  On deck we were asked to wear a white collared shirt, white shorts (it was hot and muggy in South Florida), and white tennis shoes.  Back then we got $20 in cash per game and most of the time you had a double header (Girls Varsity followed by Boys Varsity).  Some schools had a JV so that meant an extra $20.  Back then that was a lot of cash for a few hours of work.


It was a great time/experience and was mentored by Jimmy and Dave Tinkham as I started down the path of a referee. As a funny aside, when refereeing with Dave, you never had to worry about keeping track about the breaks between quarters.  At the end of each quarter, Dave would lead you out of the pool area, where he would light a cigarette and by the time he would draw his last pull, the horn would sound.  It was amazing and to this day I still don’t know how he could time that to the exact second.

I refereed for a few years at the high school level, while going to college, then took a hiatus while I finished my education in Ohio playing alongside my good friend from High School Kenny.  After graduation, I stayed in the Ohio area and got involved with officiating with the High School leagues in the Ohio and Michigan areas.  I officiated for a few years in the High School leagues, and was getting progressively better.  One Fall with the help of Dr. Peter Pappas we attempted to start a High School Referee Association in Ohio to no avail.  However it eventually took off several years later with help of many other referees and coaches in the area.


Living in the Midwest I was given the opportunity to referee for the Big Ten.  It was a Club Sport and at the time Joey Pohr led the officials where I officiated alongside Andy Matson, Rick Marsh, and Perry Korbakis.  This was a great group of fine men and consider myself lucky to know each of them.  I refereed a few years with the Big Ten, and was then invited by Tere Ma to officiate with the EPWL (now CWPA).  Back then Loren Bertocci and Tere made the assignments and evaluated the officials.  Of all the people I have known in this sport, my good friend Loren has had the biggest influence and the most positive impact on my career, my abilities, and my understanding of the game.  For that I am grateful and I own him a lot.


Over the course of the next several years in working with the CWPA during both college seasons (Men’s & Women’s), and USWP during the summers;  I got better.  I was officiating about 26-30 weekends a year.  As mentioned, Loren and later along with Bill Frady played a critical role in mentoring me, providing me with insights of the game at the next level, as well as providing me opportunities to practice my craft.  I was consistently being invited to key tournaments in both the USWP and CWPA leagues where I had the opportunity to develop lasting friendships; two more notably with Alex Stankevitch and Steve Rotsart whom I consider both good friends to this day.  The three of us were similar in age and had come up through the ranks at the same time.  Back then we made our “National” rankings with USWP the same year, and were placed on the international lists several years later.  At this point, I felt that all of the hard work, the countless days away from home, and hours on the deck that I poured into this sport in refining my craft as an official was finally paying off.  However, little did I know or realize that it was just the start of my undoing.


You have refereed top level events. Do you have a favorite?


There have been many top level events that I have participated and been a part.  Traveling around the country establishing lasting relationships with many people in our sport, I have many fond memories of these events.  Thinking back one of the more memorable events was when Guy Baker brought the Olympic Team to various cities around the country with a few stops here in the Midwest on a Public Relations Campaign to organize support for the team.  It was just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the Olympic team was performing exhibitions games with top collegiate teams.  I was lucky enough to be selected to officiate the few games that were in the Midwest with one of them in Bloomington, Indiana at Indiana University.  It was a 5½hr drive one way, and my partner and I at the time drove down the night of the game and drove back the very same night after the game.  I didn’t mind the 11hrs of driving for a 1hr game.  To me, it was bigger picture.  It was supporting my sport, supporting my team, and was starting the process of giving back a portion of what was given to me. 


If you could change any rule, would you?  If so what would it be and how would it make the game better?


When it comes to rules, they come and go.  From 5 consecutive ordinary fouls that was an exclusion, to the 2-pt shot; from the 4m Penalty to now the 5m Penalty.  These changes have been made with the intention of improving and evolving the game.  I am a firm believer that change is good, and you should strive for continuous improvement.  However, to me the most simplistic and most influential, yet most controversial rule is our Advantage Rule.   At times, changes have been made to the rules that are opposed to this premise and foundational tenet.  I think back to the hours of discussions with Loren rhetorically asking, “Marte, what did the defense do that was so good that they should get the ball?”  I also remember the bruises and contusions I got in the early days at NMB that taught me the correct position and where I needed to be in pool in reference to the ball, my opposing player, and the rest of players in the pool.  These little snippets along with many, many others help shape and mold the game as I have come to see it and thus has become my philosophy of the game.


I am well aware that there is a shift and focus on player safety, exposure, and being more audience friendly.  It is a fine line to balance these factors and that of the game.  I know how challenging it can be for the rules committee to adjust the rules accordingly and I don’t envy them at all.


You, and I both have near death experiences. How has that changed the way you approach refereeing polo?


In the spring of 2005 (the Year of Unpleasantness as I like to call it), started out as any other.  I submitted by availability for the upcoming CWPA season and started refereeing about every other weekend.  Most years I would be gone more weekends than I would be home.  It was mid-March and I was about 1/3 of the way through the season.  I was in upstate New York at Utica College with Andrew Selder for a weekend event and got to the pool for the Friday night game with a full slate of games on Saturday and Sunday.  Things went well with the Friday night game, and woke up a little queasy Saturday morning.  I ate a little and headed off to the pool in a normal routine.  However half way through the first period of the first game, I had to recuse myself from the game and headed to the locker room.  For the next 30min I got really sick.  I tried so hard to fight through it to no avail.  For the next 20hrs it was a living nightmare.  Almost every hour on the hour I got sick.  I knew I couldn’t make it back to the pool, much less trying to think how I was going to get back home the following day.


I eventually made it back home Sunday and had a severe case of Acid Reflux for the next few days, or so I thought.  I didn’t think anything of it and thought that it was related to the stomach flu I suffered through days earlier.  The sharp pain I felt was in the center-mass of my chest and felt like someone was standing on me.  I fought through the pain as I went to work on Monday and Tuesday with the lingering discomfort.  Wednesday however the pain and discomfort got worse.  So bad so, that I went to see my doctor that morning.    He performed a routine exam, and asked that I go to the ER for some additional specialized tests.  Little did I know when I drove myself from the Dr.’s Office to the ER that he was in contact with the ER informing them of my pending arrival.  As I walked up to the front doors of the ER, there were two Attendings waiting for me.  They asked if my name was Marte Salmi, which I confirmed at which point they attempted to put me on the gurney.  5 minutes later I had a central line IV, several blood samples drawn, 4 pads of an EKG monitor stuck to my chest, and a small white pill placed under my tongue.  (later I found out it was Nitroglycerine)   


The next few minutes were a blur, but one thing was “clear as day” when the Resident came in.  He said, “Mr. Salmi, there are potentially two things that are happening here, you either have an inflammation of the lining of your heart (pericarditis) or you are having a heart attack.”  That hit me like a kick to the gut I got so many times practicing with NMB.  Needless to say, many things ran through my mind, notwithstanding was I going to die?  I got ahold of my then wife, and Pastor to let them know where I was and what was going on.  I was rushed into the Catheter Lab where I was sedated and had several stents place into my Left Anterior Descending Coronary Artery.  (aka – the Widow Maker; a little known tidbit I found out after the fact)


When I came to in ICU, my then wife, former father in-law, mother in-law and pastor were at my bed side.  The Dr. came in and said everything was going to be OK, the surgery was a success, and I could expect a full recovery.  I was then informed by the Dr. that the cause was not due to lifestyle but rather to a deformity of my artery that I was born with.  When the Dr. left, my former wife leaned in and told me of a wonderful surprise.  I was going to be a Dad for the first time.  Talk about your highs and lows.  WOW!

As I recovered over the next few weeks, all I could think about was how soon I could get back on deck.  I was instructed by the Dr. not to overdo it and I reluctantly took the summer off from USWP.  Over the course of the next few months were turbulent to say the least.  I was trying to get back into a normal routine of work and home life.  I undertook the remodeling of my home office to turn it into the Baby’s room all the while wanting to get back on the deck.  Finally, late Summer came around and as usual I submitted my Fall availability with the approval of the Dr.  I had fully recovered and had no lingering side effects.  However life at home was taking a turn for the worse.


I consider myself a religious man and should have understood the sign of having a heart attack at such an early age that there were significant foundational problems I had in my life.  Unfortunately it took my heart attack, and then later the separation from my then pregnant wife several months later, followed by the birth of my child that I did not get to see, a voicemail two days after the birth letting me know I am a dad, and the eventual ugly divorce to make me realize that my life is in disarray.


I have come to believe that there is a list of the highest priorities that one should have in your life: your faith, your spouse, your family in that order.  Nowhere in the list do you see Water polo, work or any other thing else!  Unfortunately I learned the lesson the hard way when those life priorities are not in that order.  Boy did I get battered and bruised from the “lessons” I learned that year.


What is your favorite memory as a player?  A referee?


Thinking back, some of fondest memories as a player was with NMB.  I was in my late teens early 20’s going off to tournaments around the state of Florida.  The competition was always competitive and at times escalated to fierce matches.  Words were exchanged and a little pushing or shoving here and there, but just like a family after a minor tiff we were shaking hands, hugging it out, and sharing laughs over drinks later that night as we regaled stories from the past.  As a referee, my most favorite memory had nothing to do with a game.  I wasn’t the most perfect call at the most correct time, it wasn’t the correct application of a virtually unknown rule tucked away in the back of the rule book, it wasn’t even the invitation to the most prestigious event.  It had nothing to do with water polo but it had everything to do with water polo.


Early Saturday morning, 4 days after my surgery I got a knock on the front door of my house.  As I opened the door, standing in front of me were two men.  Familiar faces I had seen many times before, but not in the context of standing in my threshold.  They had woken up very early and driven more than an hour one way for an unexpected visit.  They each had coffee in their hands and the residual look of just waking up still hung on their faces.  They had heard that I had “little” health scare and came down to see me out of concern and to offer support.  They could not stay long since they had to get back.  They had to get back to officiate.  They had a game later that morning, but needed to come by for a quick visit to see how their good friend was doing.  Words cannot express the emotions that I felt as I invited them in and saw them walk through my door.  I don’t recall the conversation probably due to the fact I was getting a little misty, but Michael Goldenberg and Alex Stankevitch exemplified a Waterpolo family.  This simple act of kindness that I will never forget is an example and reason why I love this sport and cherish their friendship.




Today, 10+yrs after my unpleasantness, I am happy to say that I have fully recovered.  I have a stronger faith, a wonderful, amazing, loving woman (Alev) that I now share my life with, along with her two sons and my daughter.  I still referee every now and then to give back to the sport that gave me so much.  However my focus has changed.  I use the sport to pass on what I have learned and to reconnect with my Waterpolo family.  I use the perspective I gained to influence people I come across in a positive manner.  I realize that there are more important things in life than to be on some referee list, or officiate a certain game, or be invited to some prestigious tournament.  I came to realize that the only lists I truly care about is a Honey-Do list or a shopping list.  An invitation to certain game or tournament; sure I want to be there, provided my kids are playing in them.  


As I learned from the lessons at NMB in the water of the correct way to play, or from Loren on the deck on how to correctly officiate, or from life on how to be a better man; I hope you use my story to learn from as well