Steady as a rock he is climbing the highest mountains, raising awareness for Alzheimer disease. And in the meantime he is the most successful US memory athlete of all times. I talked with Nelson Dellis about physical and mental mountains and how to overcome them.
Memory-Sports: Hi Nelson. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nelson: Sure. I’m 29, almost 30, born in Wimbledon, England but raised in Miami, Florida (where I currently live), and I love memorizing stuff and obsessing over anything Game of Thrones. I also love playing finger-style acoustic guitar and exercising like a mad man. Boom.
Memory-Sports: Valar Morghulis! How did you come in contact with memory sports?
Nelson: Back in 2008 I was unemployed and listless in Chicago. I had always been fascinated by mental calculators and one day, while doing research on the web about that topic, I soon learned that a lot of them use memory techniques. I was like….uh….memory techniques? What the hell are those? Next thing I knew I was on the home page for the USA Memory Championship (USAMC), figuring out when I could get in and compete myself.
Memory-Sports: What is your motivation to dedicate your time to memory sports?
Nelson: So the previous story was my first contact with memory techniques, but it by no means made me a great mental athlete. I went into the 2009 USAMC with some weak training (although I came in 13th overall). It was only after that following summer when my grandma passed away (from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease) when I decided to dedicate all my energy and focus on becoming the best and winning the USAMC.
Memory-Sports: I feel with you, my grandfather died from Alzheimer as well. What does it take to become a memory champion like you?
Nelson: Practice. That’s it. Well, I guess to be more specific, it needs to be a certain type of practice. I’ve seen guys practice all year long and they can’t advance past certain barriers, or they practice awesomely but flop horribly in competition. I’ve been through my own personal flops in competition, but overall I think my practice has made me pretty solid and consistent. And…always improving 🙂 The practice needs to be “purposeful”. Finding ways to get immediate feedback on what you are doing. That can mean filming yourself, recording results, analyzing them, etc. It’s much much more than sitting down everyday and actually memorizing. For me, there is a lot that goes on around the actual memorizing. I’m pretty sure that’s what sets me apart from the rest.
Memory-Sports: When you first entered the USAMC the US records were pretty low compared to the international memory champions. Although athletes like Ram Kolli, Chester Santos and Ron White are dedicated to the sport and prove amazing skills they never pushed it over a certain level (except for Names & Faces which seems to be a specialty of the three of them). Then you came in and worked hard on constantly improving your overall scores on a very high level. You are currently ranked 26 in the world. More and more US athletes like Johnny Briones or Brad Zupp are following your footsteps. Do you think you broke the ice for them?
Nelson: Honestly, I think Ron White broke the ice. I remember the 2009 competition when he was the hot competitor who had trained like a beast and came in to break records and WIN. He did, even though the records weren’t incredible compared to the rest of the world at the time, they were still amazing compared to our standards. Anyways, seeing him mop the floor with the competition made me want to do the same the following year (I did 🙂 ). Add the motivation from my grandmother and I guess that just made things go into overdrive for me, haha. I think nowadays people have seen how my scores sit above the rest and that I’m no one special, so people are training harder to come beat me and my scores. I love it. Bring it on!
Memory-Sports: What is the deal with the USAMC? Why is it different to all other championships? And do you think this is a good thing?
Nelson: I’m not sure about the history, but from what I’ve surmised it seems that Tony Dottino (USAMC founder) worked closely with Tony Buzan (World Memory Championship founder) once upon a time. In the mid 2000s, Tony D. was getting TV show offers and had Mark Cuban’s television channel sign on for a couple years. They needed to change the format of the competition to make it more exciting for viewers at home – I’m guessing that’s where the onstage playoff/elimination rounds were born. It’s the coolest thing about the competition, in my opinion. As for Tony Buzan, he went his own way and kept things standard as they always have been. (This is all stuff I’ve pieced together and in no way is it 100% verified, just FYI).
Memory-Sports: What about international championships hosted in the USA? You are planning the Extreme Memory Championship (XMT) in 2014. But that is another story and we will cover that in an extra article. Let’s focus on the established standard. What do you think of a potential US Open Memory Championship with the ‘International Standard’? Do you think people would come to the States for such an event? Would you be interested in hosting or competing in it?
Nelson: International competitions haven’t set foot in the USA yet, mostly because there are no arbiters who can run a sanctioned WMSC event. That’s annoying. To run a sanctioned event, we’d have to fly a bunch of folks over from Europe and pay for this and that. That’s not gonna happen. I think the closest thing we have to a properly trained arbiter is Josh Cohen (in San Francisco), who I believe is planning to organize the first US Open Memory Championships with international standards quite soon. That would be great. I know a lot of people who are begging for a world ranking, but can’t find the money or time to travel abroad for a properly sanctioned competition. As for me, I would of course compete. As for running an event like that myself, I had always thought of organizing a Miami Open (on the beach YES!!!), but I’ve now been focusing all my energy on the XMT.
Memory-Sports: What is the public opinion about memory techniques? Do people know about that? Are there many books and documentaries about it? And where do you see yourself in that?
Nelson: Here in the US, it’s finally getting more and more popular. I like to think that the work I’ve done has helped with that, but if I’m being totally honest with myself most of current rise in popularity comes from Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking With Einstein.” Ever since then, memory techniques have exploded into the mainstream. It’s still not quite there, but getting there. I meet more and more people who learn about what I do and immediately say “oh…isn’t that where you make images of things and put them in your house?” Close enough! As for my part in all that, I just signed a book deal with National Geographic and am working on the book for a release in spring 2015. Hopefully that will add to what Foer started.
Memory-Sports: How is your opinion about memory techniques for school and study purposes? The general essence of British and German news reports is that these techniques are merely useful for shopping lists and PIN numbers. Do you think so, too?
Nelson: This is a tough one. Some people will argue until they are blue in the face that memory techniques aren’t useful for most things, or useful for anything at all. I think differently. I’m a believer that by training your brain, even if it’s just by memorizing a deck of cards once a day, you’re developing skills that will help you when you need to memorize something else (something that isn’t a card). I do my best in interviews and talks to share this thought with people.
Memory-Sports: Should we change something about that? If so, what would you suggest?
Nelson: I feel like the answer is yes, but I’m not sure what to change. The general public sees us memorizing cards, thousands of digits, abstract blobs, and I understand how in a quick thought they might think, “when the hell would I ever need to do that?” It’s something that needs to be explained properly before it is fully understood, unfortunately. I’m not sure if there is a way around this. Even when I go to schools to see if I can work on adding memory techniques to their curriculum, there is always a resistance. People always think it’s all a trick or that I have a special gift. It drives me up the flipping wall. I guess the more memory techniques become mainstream, the less that will happen. Who knows…
Memory-Sports: Do you think memory sports and memory techniques can help to change the world?
Nelson: I know it sounds cheezy, but I honestly do. I feel like anyone who has mastered memory techniques (or even just knows how to use them here and there) has become a better version of themself. Imagine if everyone could memorize what we memory athletes can, we’d be the most bad-ass species ever. Imagine how much more we could learn, how much more each of us would know! That can’t be a bad thing.
Memory-Sports: Tell us more about you project ‘Climb for Memory’.
Nelson: Ah yes, my charity. I started Climb For Memory in 2010 after I started realizing how much my life had improved from memory techniques. CFM is a way to share this knowledge with the world while also raising money/awareness for Alzheimer’s disease by doing something I love: climbing mountains. I figured if I paired this cause with climbing mountains, something that generates awe in most people, that it would garner a lot of attention from on-lookers.
Memory-Sports: What does it take to climb a mountain? And can we join you if we feel the call?
Nelson: Appropriately enough, it takes mental strength. A lot of people think climbing a mountain is all about physical fitness (I mean it is, to an extent), but it’s actually 90% mental. You are climbing for 7-10 hours in a row on most days, at a very slow pace, alone with your thoughts, so you need to have the mental strength to put one foot in front of the other when your body is screaming for you to stop and turn around. It’s cold, it’s painful, you can’t breathe, you smell, you’re hungry, your life is at risk….physical fitness won’t help you deal with any of those (well maybe the breathing). It’s all mental.
As for joining in for a climb, I just got back from Kilimanjaro a few weeks ago where I was doing a test run with some friends. The goal is now to start organizing this climb every year for those who have no experience and who want to climb with a purpose (raising money for Alzheimer’s). So look out for more information coming this year about how to climb with me, well, for memory, on Kilimanjaro in 2015! (www.climbformemory.org)
Memory-Sports: I somehow get the feeling that I will very closely watch your updates in this regard. 😉 Thank you for your time, Nelson.
Nelson Dellis’ Memory Statistics