Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Brookwood student Matt Stout, 17, of Lilburn has been named to the 2013 U.S. Junior World Orienteering Championship team. Stout is among the 12 teens representing the U.S. in the international competition in the Czech Republic this summer.
LILBURN -- To the layperson, an orienteering map looks like a mess.
Coach Amy Williams likened the endless squiggles, loops and often overlapping lines to "a plate of spaghetti."
But an orienteering champ understands the contours and the colors. An orienteering champ like 17-year-old Matt Stout sees the map, folds it up, puts it in his pocket and takes off, sneakers pounding pine needles and fallen leaves.
A rising senior at Brookwood High School, Stout is one of 12 people who recently represented the United States during the 2013 Junior Orienteering World Championship in the Czech Republic.
Just what is orienteering?
Stout explained it as "a land navigation sport, where you run from point to point almost like cross country, but instead of having a set route you have to read a map and make your own route."
According to orienteeringusa.org, the concept was devised originally in Sweden as a military training exercise. It evolved into a competitive sport for both the military and civilians. The term was first used in 1886 at a Swedish military academy and "referred to the crossing of unknown land with the aid of a map and a compass."
Williams, who is Stout's coach, explained it as a "running sport for thinkers."
She said participants -- or orienteers -- "must have the physical stamina to run several miles without collapsing ... and must have the ability to decipher a very detailed topographic map."
A typical orienteering map consists of solid and broken lines as well as dots and notches, which denote features like knolls, boulders, bridges, tunnels, fences and footpaths.
The maps are also color-coded based on land forms, water features and vegetation (green). Generally, green means it's going to be tough.
Williams said that orienteers like Stout "can look at the map, and it's almost 3D to their eyes."
From the very first time he picked up an orienteering map in eighth grade, both Stout and those who watched him knew he had something special.
A 13-year-old among older kids -- many of whom already had their driver's license -- he set out as a brand-new orienteer, so novice he barely knew the rules.
"I felt really young, because most of the other competitors were JROTC high school students, but I walked to one point and understood what to do," he said. "I easily found my way and ran my first course."
Stout mopped the floor with them. He got second place among 39 contestants: all of them likely astounded. Who was this kid?
"The kid is fast," said Williams. "He's incredibly fast. He moves through the woods like it's a piece of cake. He makes it look easy."
The woman -- who is also the director of Gwinnett Orienteers (GO!) -- has full confidence in Stout's abilities.
Prior to being named to the United States JWOC team, Stout was crowned the U.S. Interscholastic Varsity Orienteering Champion of 2013. In addition, he was the 2011 Orienteering Champion of the Ultra-long Event in the M-18 (males 18 and under) category.
He's also a member of his school's track and field teams.
But to be good at this sport, Williams said, you've got to have the brains. Stout doesn't disappoint.
An active Boy Scout, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout at the age of 14. His school GPA is currently 3.9, and he's ranked in the top five percent of his class, which is made up of more than 800 students.
Stout said being able to think -- and in particular, think on one's feet -- comes into play when a competitor is out in the middle of the woods with no clear path in sight, the pines looking all too alike, the usual landmarks nowhere to be seen. Oftentimes, he said, it's just you and the map.
"Being able to understand the map and keep up with where you are is key," Stout said. "Once you can do that, it's about being physically fit ... and getting there as fast as possible."
He said that in Georgia State Parks (where the events are typically held), "woods are very open, and it's pretty easy to find your way."
Navigating parks in, say, Washington State, is another story.
"That's one of the more challenging places I've been. In Washington, once you're off the trail there's so much undergrowth and brush you can barely tiptoe anywhere," he said.
Williams said that Stout always comes through, edging past the briars and bramble, vines and shrubs, because he's "a natural in the woods."
Taking his skills and talent to the Czech Republic is exciting.
"I'm ecstatic," said Stout, who will be there training and competing before returning on Thursday.
The top six competitors were named to the U.S. team based on rankings, which Stout explained as "a complicated math formula" that rates orienteers nationwide based on their performance at sponsored events. Among his peers, he is ranked fifth in the nation.
Like countless orienteers before him, he'll continue a century-old tradition, competing in a game of athleticism and intelligence all too familiar to those in Norway and beyond -- yet somewhat of a continued mystery to those of this country.As an orienteer ambassador for the United States, Stout will represent us well, Williams said.
"He's impressive," she said, adding that no matter where the 17-year-old is -- in this country or any other -- "if he's in the woods, he's comfortable."