A group of young Seattle-area athletes won hardware at a national tournament this weekend, but that story has nothing to do with March Madness.
Members of the Tahoma Orienteering Club of Maple Valley raced through the forests east of Cincinnati during the Junior Orienteering USA National Championships held April 1-3 at East Fork State Park in the Clermont County, Ohio. The team’s hard work paid off, with the club’s varsity and JV teams both placing first in group competitions, adding to the trophies Benjamin Brady and Zariah Zosel, crowned individual national champions and runners-up respectively for the boys and college girls, and Ben Cooper. , who was the JV Boys Individual National Champion.
“Each member of the Tahoma Guidance team pushes each other to train harder and do better,” Tahoma High School junior Benjamin Brady said, “and so see it pay off after years of racing in rain, mud and rare sunshine is amazing.”
So what exactly is orienteering?
John Brady, Benjamin’s father and head coach of the club — which includes several teams, made up of Tahoma High School students and junior members from colleges in the Greater Seattle area — describes the sport as a game of cross-country, part treasure hunt and part compass. navigation exercises. Competitors arrive at an unfamiliar location and armed with a paper map and compass, they must navigate to checkpoints in a specific order, racing against the clock and other athletes.
“One of the fun things is that there are divisions for public runners, so parents can race alongside their kids on their own courses,” the elder Brady said. “So this sport is great fun for outdoor families who like to run or hike. [Orienteering] requires mental and physical strength, and the fastest runner does not always win; it’s a combination of speed and navigation skills.
Ahead of the tournament, Tahoma High School varsity and junior team member Jack Barkley said he was most looking forward to competing at nationals for the first time with his sister Hollie Barkley, a seventh-year Summit Trail Middle School. “She just started orienteering last summer, and she happens to be the same age as me when I started,” he said.
Hollie competed on a team organized by the Cascade Orienteering Club of Seattle, a larger nonprofit that has been creating maps and hosting orienteering events in Washington for 45 years. Between orientation clubs Tahoma and Cascade, Western Washington sent several teams to nationals, ranging from college kids to University of Washington students, who finished second in the intercollegiate division.
Jack Barkley said his favorite part of orienteering is the feel of a course. “When I’m in the woods, I’m alone, which is a luxury I don’t have very often,” he said. Barkley placed eighth among Ohio varsity boys.
Tahoma team member Greta Leonard, an eighth-grader who has been orienteering for about 18 months and finished third among junior varsity girls, said the national tournaments provide a great opportunity to ‘learning.
“To progress in orienteering, you have to run on new sites that challenge you to read the map when you are unfamiliar with the terrain,” she said. For Leonard, the hardest part of the sport is staying calm enough to locate herself on the map, even when she’s “very lost.”
While she enjoys learning from her mistakes, Leonard also enjoys being in the moment on the course. Above all, she loves being part of a team. This became especially valuable when school went virtual at the start of the pandemic. Due to its outdoor and socially distant nature, orienteering has become the perfect activity in the COVID-19 era.
During the races, competitors choose their own routes, with start times staggered by approximately two minutes. Racers do not necessarily follow others they spy along the way as seven or eight courses may be located on the same terrain (usually parks or other wooded areas). A fundamental element of any orienteering race: no one is allowed to know in advance where they are going.
To count the points, the competitors use an electronic timing system. Once athletes have received their course map, they insert an ePunch Activecard — like a USB stick made just for orienteering — into the “start box” at the starting point of the race, then it’s left. Participants must reach all checkpoints on the map and electronically register their stops in a designated order; complete disqualification occurs if they miss a checkpoint or visit them out of order. Individual winners are declared, as are team winners. Although the fastest runner does not always win, the objective is to complete the course accurately in the fastest time.
Although orienteering is more popular overseas, fewer Americans are familiar with it. “In an area like Washington with so many outdoor enthusiasts,” Coach Brady said, “I think if more people knew about it, they’d want to try it.” He calls the club’s Maple Valley training ground an “orienteering utopia,” with numerous parks, hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of acres of forest. The kids at Hardy Pacific Northwest train year-round, even when they’re “shivering in the rain,” Brady said.
The Junior National Championships tournament was a multi-day event consisting of “long” course competitions, in which a typical winning time is around 55 minutes. In total, the Tahoma Orienteering Club brought five varsity boys and girls, five JV boys and girls, plus young Barkley, to Ohio. Tahoma’s coaching duties are shared by Brady, his wife Sherri and Chris Cooper, who will take over as head coach next year, as Brady jokes that he’s ‘getting old’ in the sport . (“Kids love [Cooper]and he’s a great coach,” Brady said.) Coach Brady will continue to provide support as an assistant and coach to the older kids.
Brady grew up in a physically active family and was in the Navy for 20 years, working in the air force as a navigator. When Sherri got into adventure racing in 2008 – on San Juan Island with Quest Races – the couple were introduced to the world of orienteering and their interest grew together. Their son, Benjamin, joined a little league orienteering in third grade. The following year, John and Sherri formed a team with six children. Tahoma Orienteering has since grown into one of the largest orienteering clubs in the region, with 33 young athletes on the club’s various teams. Over the years, they have trained over 100 children.
What does it take to be an orienteering star? Brady says the sport requires spatial awareness and hyperfocus. Orienteering often attracts kids who haven’t thrived in “traditional” sports, Brady says, or those who don’t like the pressure of performing on stage. “I find this sport allows students to fail in a safe way,” Brady said, “to build skills in resilience and ultimately self-confidence by learning to really examine mistakes and bounce back.” They should use these lessons to anticipate route planning choices and their consequences.
Brady also enjoys the randomness of orienteering that makes the sport unpredictable. “Anything is possible,” he said. “Crazy things always happen.”
For Brady, who says he devotes most of his free time to sports, it’s a gift to grow up alongside these youngsters. He has coached many members of the orienteering club since they were in third grade – and several members of a local robotics team during their pre-high school years as well. “I really liked the kids I’m with,” he said. “They let me into their life. They were good to me.
Brady has been especially willing to dedicate his time to the team during these difficult pandemic years. “If they want to train, he said, I’ll set up a course. I’ll push myself when they do.
The students took notes. Leonard said amid the pandemic, Tahoma Orienteering provided a social outlet she couldn’t find elsewhere.
“I know Coach Brady worked hard to give us a safe place to be with friends in person last season during the pandemic,” she said.
Coach Brady, whose passion is palpable, says orienteering teaches many life lessons. “I’ve been in sports all my life, and it’s one of the best sports I’ve ever participated in,” he said.
No matter the outcome, Leonard is always happy to travel with her teammates.
“We are so lucky to be able to get a whole team together to compete in the national championships,” she said. “I am thrilled that we can compete together and represent Tahoma and Cascade Orienteering Club at the national level.”
Benjamin Brady, who has the trophy to prove he is among the best young orienteering athletes in the country, echoed that positive, team-first attitude.
“Although unfortunately only a few people make it to the podium at the end of the day, it’s the work of the team that has gotten them to this point,” he said. “Without each person, we had no chance of winning the individual or team championships.”