Two local orienteering stars headed for year in Europe

Dedham native Samantha Saeger. Dedham native Samantha Saeger. (Adrian Zissos/Canadian
Orienteering Federation)
By Marvin Pave
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2011

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To be among the best, Dedham native and 2010 United States Orienteer of the Year Samantha Saeger will train and compete with the best.

Saeger and her fiancé, Ross Smith, will fly to Sweden in two weeks; they plan to reside there for a year. Saeger and Smith, the reigning US female and male orienteering champions, will compete next month at Swiss O Week and at the World Orienteering Championships in Aix-les-Bains, France.

“We’re going to live and breathe orienteering,’’ said Saeger, a teacher and Newton resident whose second-grade class at the Mitchell School in Needham has done some orienteering of their own on a course set up by Saeger.

“The world’s best orienteering courses and clubs are in Europe, and some of the best orienteers there are professionals. We’re taking time off from work and paying our own way to learn and improve as much as we can.’’

Most popular in Scandinavia, France, and Switzerland, orienteering was originally a military training exercise. It requires the individual to view a topographical map that they have never seen prior to the event. It shows the overall terrain along with circled and numbered control points that must be successfully navigated with the aid of a compass.

Foot orienteering distances and competitions vary - they include sprint, middle distance, long distance, and relay - but the challenge in each is to pick out the best route without missing any checkpoints and running fast enough to finish ahead of the pack.

“The trick is to run it as fast as you can without slowing down, pausing, or taking a wrong turn, even for a few steps,’’ said Saeger.

“Every hesitation means that your competition is getting further ahead of you. It’s stressful, last-minute decision making at its best.’’

Saeger, along with her younger sister Hillary, learned the sport at an early age from their father, Jeff, a former president of the New England Orienteering Club, and their mother, Judy Karpinski.

A track captain and field hockey player at Dedham High and a 2004 Colby College graduate, the 28-year-old Saeger tied her own best-ever finish by an American last year at the European-dominated World Orienteering Championships in Trondheim, Norway, placing 29th in the long (9 kilometer) final.

She also ran the first leg for the US women’s relay team, finishing in seventh place, just two minutes off the lead.

Prior to her senior year of high school, Saeger traveled to Europe for the first time to compete in the Junior World Orienteering Championships. She finished eighth - still the best performance by an American at any level of major international orienteering competition.

“For North American orienteers, our main goal is simply to make the finals. We don’t have the support or infrastructure that other countries have, which puts us at a disadvantage,’’ she said.

Her orienteering travels have taken Saeger to 20 states and 16 other countries, starting in 1999 at the World Juniors in Bulgaria and including other World Orienteering Championship competitions in Japan, Denmark, the Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Hungary.

“I’ve run courses during the sprint that have gone through urban settings like amusement parks and castles, and I’ve had to navigate through or around swamps and sinkholes, get past cliffs and through dense forests on the long-distance courses,’’ said Saeger. “I wear a small computer chip on my finger, which I put into a box at each checkpoint, and that’s how our times are computed.

“The sprint race in particular may look simple - but then you have to remember that the first time you see the map and the course is when they say go, time starts, and you flip the map over and begin running. Imagine trying to make the best decisions about the shortest and fastest route while also running at full speed. And while having spectators yelling at you, other competitors running around you and cameras filming you.’’

Saeger, who trains locally in the Blue Hills Reservation, the Hale Reservation in Dover, and the Middlesex Fells Reservation, said her honor as the nation’s Orienteer of the Year was gratifying because of the hard work she’s put into training.

“The allure of orienteering, for me,’’ she said, “was mostly social as a 14- or 15-year-old, but as I started to compete at the world level as a junior, the challenge of being strong mentally and physically and of making quick but accurate decisions took over.’’

Jeff Saeger said both his daughters were exposed early on to skiing, tennis, and biking and became versatile athletes before they were teenagers, all in preparation to become better orienteers.

His daughter Hillary, 26, who also competed in orienteering and now resides in Watertown, is a member of US Rowing’s National (Lightweight) Team.

Even elite orienteers, however, can find themselves in unexpected situations.

Two years ago, while competing in a distance competition in Ohio, Saeger was approaching a checkpoint bordered by a river.

“It had been very rainy and the river was deeper than usual. I just kept going, hoping I would make it to the other side before it got too deep,’’ she recalled. “But then my feet didn’t reach the bottom and I swam the last few feet.

“Unfortunately, it was April and very cold.’’

The New England Orienteering Club holds events open to the public and for beginners. For information and the club’s schedule, go to

Marvin Pave can be reached at or 508-820-4223.