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by Meg Parson


This July, I traveled to Poland to compete in the Junior World Orienteering Championships (JWOC).  Before I recount some of my experiences, I would just like to thank NEOC for their generous grant that helped pay for some of my travel expenses; their support is very much appreciated.  

It was an eventful couple of weeks, filled with both sick teammates and new friendships, solid runs from the US Junior Team and beautiful open woods.  Yes, none of us spoke very good Polish (and an iPod translator can only get you so far).  And yes, there was a minor outbreak of food poisoning at our hotel.  But all in all the US Junior Team had solid performances during the week of competition and managed to have a pretty good time along the way.

I landed at the Gdansk airport on Saturday afternoon.  After a slight delay, I made it through customs (the immigration officer seemed a little confused about what exactly orienteering was — if you thought explaining the sport in a normal situation was difficult, try someone in a foreign country who doesn't speak very good English).  But finally I made it out to the ground floor of the airport, and was relieved to see the familiar looming body of Greg Walker, our coach, and Nate Lyons, another teammate.  They were waiting by the rental car desk, and apparently had been there for three or four hours already.  The desk was abandoned and they weren't sure when any Budget car employees would be back… hopefully, soon.

Eventually, we did get to the van.  Greg had only driven a car with manual transmission a few times before, so the first few minutes of the ride were a little rocky, but soon we were out on the roads of Poland and on our way.  Everything went smoothly after that and we were able to do a bit of training that afternoon, on a map in woods behind our hotel.  The terrain was nice -- pretty open, with rolling hills and not too much green. 

The training week rolled on.  As Americans flew in from all parts of the world (Italy… Ireland.. Connecticut), our dinner table begin to fill more and more until we had the full 9 people that made up our team.  Then things took a turn for the worse... Tuesday night is a night, I am sure, much of the JWOC team would rather not remember.  Something in the food or some virus from the chef left much of the hotel guests puking up their dinner — and it wasn't just the Americans.  The Swedish team, famous for their top ranked orienteers, were hit just as hard, and the news quickly spread around Wejherowo that everyone at Hotel Murat had food poisoning. To be fair, a few survived. Greg seemed unaffected, probably because he is so big; Allison Campbell and Carl Underwood had only arrived the day before and probably hadn't eaten the offending food; and Zach Schroeder, maybe because he's from West Point and has a stomach made of top grade military steel.  No matter the reasons, the sickness was hardly ideal.  I spent the day watching bad Polish TV and attempting to regain some of the sleep I had lost the night before.  The sickness wasn't fun, but luckily it also wasn't long lasting.  The next day the team was back training with the Canadians, and it only took until the day after that for me to feel totally recovered — still a few days before the competition was set to begin.

The first event of JWOC was the sprint, set in Lebork, a few towns over from where we were staying.  It started in a park-like area and there were a few controls in the woods, but the majority of it took place in the town itself.  Surrounded by spectators and people who are much better orienteers than me, it was more than a little nerve-wracking.  Perhaps my best memory from the race is when I stopped on a side street, looking for a control, and having a group of Polish spectators point to around the corner where my control was hiding.  I'm not sure if this was officially sanctioned but it was nice of them to help me out!

The Long course was the day after- definitely my favorite event.  I made a few mistakes that I regret, but the beauty of the long is that a mistake or two doesn't automatically discount your race -- there' s still time to make it up.  On my worst mistake, I remember hitting a trail and starting to run on it the wrong way.  I passed two Polish men walking along, and as I ran past them they started chanting "USA! USA!" after seeing my American uniform top.  30 seconds later, I realized I was headed in the wrong direction and had to turn around and pass them again, much to my chagrin.  I think one of them said something like, "Don't you know where you're going?" but I can't be entirely sure -- they seemed good-natured enough.

After the rest day, the races passed in a blur.  There was the Middle Qualifier, then the Middle Final, then the JWOC Relay.  With only me and Alison, the American girls didn't have enough runners for an official relay team, but we were able to get an Italian girl to run with us so we could compete as an unofficial team of three.  I ran the anchor leg of the relay and it was a surreal feeling, running down the finish chute, knowing the week of JWOC was over so soon. The morning after the banquet, I headed off to Finland to race in the Fin5, which brought with it a whole new set of experiences.  All in all, JWOC 2011 was a great trip, both in terms of the orienteering terrain and the new people I met.