By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Not surprising, discipline and integrity were a large part of Cummings' coaching. Was White fulfilling all of the training goals he was setting? Was there any reason he doubted his own ability to deliver on his promises to himself? There was one thing. He was consistently waking later than he intended to in the mornings. "If I can't even do that, how am I going to bring home the title for being No. 1 in the U.S.?" White says.
Cummings' solution was to come up with a consequence that would "wipe the slate clean" and keep White from beating himself up so he could move forward with a clear conscience. The next time he slept in—on a 33-degree day in January—White forced himself to swim a full lap in his apartment complex pool. "When I got out, I totally felt like I'd paid the price," White says. "I didn't oversleep again."
As his training progressed and he sought better and better times, however, he grew discouraged for other reasons. "What a lesson I learned," he wrote after the holidays. "The week off made me significantly slower! I really need to watch diet, as well. I had a tea with artificial sweetener today and can feel my head exploding. WATER! WATER! It took me one full minute longer to memorize a deck of cards...No more time off." A couple of weeks later he was even more frustrated. "I am in a mental slump," he wrote. "I can't focus, memorize, or sit still to practice. My mind is mush."
Cummings coached him to build his confidence. He told him to look back over his life and list the accomplishments, from the smallest to the biggest, that made him worthy of winning. "Reactively, we look for our failures," Cummings says. "So it takes intention and effort to look for the evidence showing all the things we've done and are currently doing to make us worthy."
White, ever eager and dedicated, dove into his past and went digging for successes. There was the time he beat his friend Brian McMahon at the bench-sit—a quadriceps workout that entails squatting with back against the wall—in sixth-grade P.E., for example. He squatted, sweating and gritting his teeth, legs shaking, until Brian's legs buckled. He listed that in his journal. He'd served in the military, spoken before thousands of people, memorized a 41-digit number in four minutes and built a successful seminar business. He listed those. He'd altered his diet, memorized a deck of cards underwater in two minutes and five seconds and visualized himself winning the USA Memory Championship. He wrote all of that down. He also wrote, "I am the Nolan Ryan of memory."
He came up with motivational mantras for the times he doubted himself. His favorite was inspired by one of the Indian characters in the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto. "I am Ron White, and this is my forest," he'd say to himself. "I am not afraid." The others included, "I am calm," "I am worthy of winning," "My brain operates fast" and "I am the 2009 USA Memory Champion—Congrats, Memory Champion!"
A curious thing happened in the final weeks before the championship. While in the beginning he felt he absolutely had to win the 2009 tournament to live with himself—Thomas recalls him writing in an e-mail that he "wouldn't die a happy man" if he lost—the closer it got, the more confident he was that he would win, but the less he felt he had to.
"He realized he'd already won," Cummings says, addressing a subtle but crucial achievement paradox. "When he started he said he had to win, but we know that when we get attached to an outcome, we become dependent on that result to dictate how we feel about ourselves. In the end, he'd already achieved all that he wanted to achieve, and the title would be gravy. It's never about the end result. It's about who you become in the process."
It was during the fastest-to-memorize-a-deck-of-cards portion of the 2009 USA Memory Championship at New York's Con Edison building that Chester Santos, the 2008 defending champion, realized that White would be a formidable foe. The 32-year-old software engineer and University of California at Berkeley graduate had never seen anything like it since he began competing in the tournament in 2003. After taking a full five minutes to memorize just 20 playing cards the year before, this time, White memorized an entire deck in one minute and 27 seconds. He broke the national record in the first round, while Santos—usually best at this particular event—was sticking to his safe first-round score of around three minutes.
"I didn't expect him to improve that drastically in one year. It's unheard of," Santos says. "At that point, I was like, 'Wow, this guy's serious.' I knew then that it was between me and him."
After starting out in the morning's qualifying rounds with some 50 competitors—those events included memorizing poems and photographs of people and their names—by the first afternoon event, only seven competitors remained. This year, like the year before, both Santos and White were among the final seven. And for both men, the biggest challenge of the day would be the Tea Party. If any of the last mental athletes missed more than two answers, they would be disqualified.