Ethnic profiling. Stereotyping. Call it what you want, but those who are serious about the sport of orienteering swear that to be successful, one must be Scandinavian.
Sure, the sport, which involves finding one's way in unfamiliar territory, originated in Scandinavia. Sure, the Scandinavians are responsible for the Vikings, who sailed unknown waters to discover America. And sure, if you look at the list of worldwide gold medal orienteering winners over the past 40 years, all those names with vowels decorated with diagonal slashes or double dots sound like someone who might show up at a Larson family reunion.
The Scandinavians have statistics on their side. But certainly, there's someone out there somewhere who can break that stereotype, isn't there?
Just look at John Williams, a sophomore at Parkview High School. This young man of Welsh descent isn't aware of even a drop of Scandinavian blood in his family history, yet he just claimed the 2008 Junior Varsity National Orienteering Championship in Athens, Texas.
With nothing but a map and a compass, Williams, the only competitor from Georgia, had to find the fastest way to cross through a state park he had never seen before. Along the way, he had to document 11 checkpoints in order on a scorecard. Should he take the straightest route through thickets and thorns? Should he chance jumping over a stream that may be full despite the drought? Or should he skirt around all the obstacles on well-worn paths? These are on-the-spot decisions he had to make, and he had only one chance to get it right and do it faster than anyone else.
Even without Scandinavian genes, Williams, who has been orienteering almost all his life, can credit at least some of his skills to his family background. His great-great uncle, John Williams Overton, held the world record of 4:16 for the indoor mile. Experts believed he would have been the first person to break the four-minute mile, had it not been for his untimely death during World War II. His father, Lt. Col. Hensley Clay Williams, competed worldwide on the Marine Corps/U.S. Orienteering Team. And his mother, Amy Williams, is assistant coach for the Parkview ROTC Orienteering Team, of which Williams is an active member.
I asked John if he thought he would have gone so far in orienteering had his parents not exposed him to it at such a young age.
"Actually," he said as he drew a breath, "I feel like it's just in me."
I would be remiss not to mention that at some point the Vikings invaded almost every country in Europe, including Wales. The gene pool of every European-American could very well contain a drop of Scandinavian blood. But I rather like the notion that John Williams truly is a pure Welshman and that he's not only breaking national orienteering records, but ethnic stereotypes as well.
For more information on orienteering, visit www.gaoreinteering.org.
Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.