A group of young athletes from the Seattle area took home hardware in a national tournament over the weekend, but this story has nothing to do with March Madness.  

Members of Maple Valley’s Tahoma Orienteering Club raced through the forests east of Cincinnati at the Orienteering USA Junior Nationals held April 1-3 at East Fork State Park in 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 trophies for Benjamin Brady and Zariah Zosel, crowned individual national champion and runner-up for varsity boys and girls, respectively, and Ben Cooper, who was the individual boys JV national champ. 

“Every single person on the Tahoma Orienteering team pushes each other to train harder and do better,” said Tahoma High School junior Benjamin Brady, “and so to see it pay off after years of running in the rain, mud and rare sunshine is incredible.” 

So what exactly is orienteering? 

John Brady, Benjamin’s dad and head coach for the club — which includes several teams, composed of Tahoma High School students and junior members from Greater Seattle-area middle schools — describes the sport as part cross-country, part scavenger hunt and part compass-navigation skill drills. 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 there are divisions for public racers, so parents can compete alongside their kids on their own courses,” the elder Brady said. “So this sport is great fun for outdoor families who enjoy trail running or hiking. [Orienteering] requires mental and physical strength, and the fastest runner doesn’t always win; it’s a combination of speed and navigation skills.”

Ahead of the tournament, varsity team member and Tahoma High School junior Jack Barkley said he most looked forward to competing at nationals for the first time with his sister, Summit Trail Middle School seventh grader Hollie Barkley. “She just started doing orienteering last summer, and she happens to be the same age that I was when I first started,” he said. 

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Hollie competed on a team organized by Seattle-based Cascade Orienteering Club, a larger, nonprofit organization that has been creating maps and hosting orienteering events in Washington for 45 years. Between Tahoma and Cascade orienteering clubs, Western Washington sent several teams to nationals, ranging from middle schoolers to University of Washington students, who finished second in the intercollegiate division.     

Jack Barkley said his favorite part of orienteering is the feeling he gets on a course. “When I’m out in the woods, I’m by myself, which is a luxury that I don’t get to have very often,” he said. Barkley placed eighth among varsity boys in Ohio. 

Tahoma team member Greta Leonard, an eighth grader who has been orienteering for about 18 months and who finished third among junior varsity girls, said national tournaments provide a great learning opportunity. 

“To improve in orienteering, you have to race in new venues that challenge you to read the map when you are not familiar with the terrain,” she said. For Leonard, the most challenging part of the sport is staying calm enough to locate herself on the map, even when she gets “very lost.”

While she values learning from her mistakes, Leonard also appreciates being in the moment while out on the course. Above all, she cherishes being part of a team. This became especially precious when school went virtual at the start of the pandemic. Due to its outdoor and socially distanced nature, orienteering became the perfect COVID-19-era activity.

During races, competitors choose their own routes, with start times staggered by about two minutes. Racers don’t necessarily follow others they spy along the way because seven or eight courses can be located on the same terrain (typically parks or other wooded areas). One fundamental element to every orienteering competition: No one is allowed to know where they’re going ahead of time. 

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To keep score, competitors use an electronic timing system. Once the athletes receive their course map, they insert an ePunch Activecard — like a USB drive made just for orienteering — into the “start box” at the race’s beginning point, then they’re off. Participants must reach all map checkpoints and electronically log their stops in a designated order; full disqualification occurs if they miss one checkpoint or visit them out of order. Individual winners are declared, as are team winners. While the fastest runner doesn’t always win, accurately completing the course in the fastest time is the objective. 

Although orienteering is more popular abroad, fewer Americans are familiar. “In an area like Washington with so many outdoor enthusiasts,” coach Brady said, “I think that if more people knew about it, they would want to try it out.” He calls the club’s training ground of Maple Valley an “orienteering utopia,” with many parks, hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of acres of forest. Hardy Pacific Northwest kids practice year-round, even when “shivering in the rain,” Brady said. 

The Junior Nationals tournament was a multiday event consisting of “long” course competitions, in which a typical winning time is around 55 minutes. All told, Tahoma Orienteering Club brought five varsity boys and girls, five JV boys and girls, plus the younger Barkley, to Ohio. Tahoma coaching duties are shared by Brady, his wife Sherri, and Chris Cooper, who will take over as the head coach next year, since Brady jokes he’s “aging out” of the sport. (“The kids love [Cooper], and he is a great coach,” Brady said.) Coach Brady will continue to offer support as an assistant and a coach to the older kids.

Brady grew up in a physically active family and was in the Navy for 20 years, working in aviation as a navigator. When Sherri got into adventure racing in 2008 — on San Juan Island with Quest Races — the couple was introduced to the world of orienteering and their interest grew together. Their son, Benjamin, joined a small orienteering league in third grade. The following year, John and Sherri started a team with six kids. Tahoma Orienteering has since grown into one of the area’s biggest orienteering clubs, with 33 young athletes on the club’s various teams. Throughout the years, they’ve trained more than 100 kids. 

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 at “traditional” sports, Brady says, or those who don’t like the pressure of performing on a stage. “I find that this sport allows students to fail in a safe way,” Brady said, “building skills in resilience and ultimately self-confidence as they learn to really examine mistakes and bounce back.” They must use those lessons to think ahead about route planning choices and their consequences.

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Brady also appreciates the element of randomness in orienteering that keeps the sport unpredictable. “Anything is possible,” he said. “Crazy things always happen.”

For Brady, who says he dedicates nearly all his spare time to the sport, it’s been a gift to grow alongside these youngsters. He’s coached many members of the orienteering club since they were in third grade — and several on a local robotics team in their pre-high school years, too. “I’ve really enjoyed the kids I get to be around,” he said. “They let me in their life. They’ve been good to me.”

Brady has been especially willing to devote his time to the team during these challenging pandemic years. “If they want to practice,” he said, “I’ll set up a course. I’ll push myself when they do.”

The students have taken note. Leonard said that, in the midst of the pandemic, Tahoma Orienteering provided a social outlet she couldn’t get 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 have played sports my whole life, and it’s been one of the best sports I have been a part of,” he said. 

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No matter the outcome, Leonard is always thrilled to travel with her teammates.

“We are so fortunate to be able to put together a whole team to compete at nationals,” she said. “I am stoked we get to compete together and represent Tahoma and Cascade Orienteering Club at the national level.”

Benjamin Brady, who has the trophy to prove he’s among the best young orienteering athletes in the country, echoed that positive, team-first attitude. 

“While, unfortunately, only a few people stand on the podium at the end of the day, it is the work of the team that gets them to this point,” he said. “Without each person, there was no chance of us winning either the individual or team championships.”