Three Rivers native overcomes tragedy to win 2022 USA Memory Championship
THREE RIVERS — Just two days prior to one of the biggest competitions of his year back in October, John Graham was dealt a shocking piece of news.
Graham, a 36-year-old Three Rivers native, learned that a family member had died by suicide, something that hit him fairly hard in the run-up to the biggest memory competition in the country, the 2022 USA Memory Championships in Winter Park, Fla.
“Those two days before the event I was completely deflated, a lot of anger and sadness,” Graham said. “It was a lot of anger too, because I was thinking about how that event could derail me from something I’ve wanted, so that was tough, seeing all my family completely numb and going through what they went through and knowing that this could derail me if I wasn’t focused and didn’t persevere.”
However, Graham, a mental performance coach by trade, said he was able to process and face those emotions head-on, and by the day of the event, he had a “clear mind” and was able to focus on the competition.
“I was nervous going into the first couple events. I felt a couple nerves, but after I had felt comfortable and succeeded in those events, the nerves calmed and I was in a complete, present focused state to win it,” Graham said.
And win it he did.
The 2005 Three Rivers High School graduate, who currently resides in Kalamazoo, won the 2022 USA Memory Championship back on Oct. 22, his second time winning the competition in the last five years. It was an emotional win not just for him, but for his family as well.
“My whole family watched the event live online, and it was an incredibly bright light for our family in that moment for me to be able to persevere through the face of everything we were going through,” Graham said.
Graham has been rising through the ranks over the last decade as having one of the sharpest memories in the country, advancing deep into both national and international tournaments in the last several years, previously winning the USA Memory Championship back in 2018. He said winning this year’s tournament was something he had visualized in his mind for quite a while.
“I had seen it happen hundreds of thousands of times in my mind over the years, so when it happened, it felt like all the other times I’d seen it happen. It was always there, it was something I visualized, emotionalized and worked hard at,” Graham said.
Graham’s win may not have been shocking to him right away, but the number of tasks he and the more than two dozen competitors at this year’s event had to accomplish during the competition en route to the title may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with memory challenges.
Competitors in the USA Memory Championships competed in four events throughout the day. The first was memorizing a list of 200 words given to them just 15 minutes before the event. One incorrect response, and a competitor is eliminated.
Next, their long-term memory was challenged, having to answer questions about different aspects of a set of 2,000 pieces of data given to them a month prior to the competition to memorize. Subject matter in that event included notable companies, information about WWE wrestlers, and information about the different NASA shuttle launches. Competitors are allowed two misses before being eliminated.
Third, competitors had 15 minutes to hear and review facts about six different people, and have to remember those facts when asked; three incorrect responses, and the competitor is eliminated.
Finally, the remaining competitors had five minutes to memorize the order of two separate shuffled decks of 52 playing cards. Each competitor then takes turns reciting what the next card is, and if they make one mistake, they are eliminated. The last person remaining is the champion.
During the competition, the three finalists together were able to memorize 25 cards in the first deck, with Graham being the last one standing after both of his fellow competitors faltered.
“If I knew I could stay focused, I could win that event. At that point, I was in the moment and focused, so it felt good,” Graham said.
During the presentation of the trophy at the competition, Graham made mention of the broader situation he had gone through throughout the week, and gave encouragement to those who may be going through a similar situation mentally.
“Anyone out there that’s going through something tough, don’t force down the emotions, let them come up, let the reality set in, but just keep moving on with your dreams, keep moving forward, and seek out support if you need it,” Graham said.
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Graham’s second win in the USA Memory Championship, or even his first win, probably would not have happened at all if it weren’t for a single book he found at a Barnes and Noble back in 2014.
That book was Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” a New York Times best-selling book published in 2012. It documented the author’s quest to improve his memory, utilizing research and the tutelage of top “mental athletes,” as well as documenting a USA Memory Championship event, taking a deep dive into the history of remembering and different tricks to use to remember things better.
“It spoke to me,” Graham said of the book. “The subtitle said ‘The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,’ and that just captured me and grabbed me. I pulled it off the shelf and bought it.”
While Graham read the book, he realized that by using different techniques and training, along with learning how the brain remembers information, he could be able to remember much more than he had. One of those techniques he uses in his training is something called the “memory palace,” what he called a “bread-and-butter” technique, where you “mentally walk” through places you know and associate different items with different words.
“If I’m memorizing words, and I have the word ‘duck’ and the word ‘understanding,’ the way I would memorize that is I would stand at my front door, I would see a duck at my front door, and maybe he’s trying to understand something, like, ‘why won’t this door open?’ I put that image there, that story there and connect it to that location, and I’d walk and see the next part,” Graham said.
Graham decided to put those techniques to the test almost immediately. Only a couple months after he read the book, he participated in his first memory competition, held in China. According to his standards, he said he “bombed” a few of the events and didn’t do as well as he hoped. In fact, he said he almost got up and walked out during some of the events.
“Some of the events, you have an hour to memorize as many numbers as you can or as many decks of cards, and it’s sitting there for an hour with your heart racing and it’s a mind game, and it’s pretty intense. So I thought about giving up a few times,” Graham said. “For some reason, I stayed in my chair and kept going.”
However, he took the entire competition as a learning experience, learning from the numerous mental athletes in attendance.
“I was talking to the top competitors about it, and they really drew me in, realizing that all the pressure I was experiencing, I could overcome that too, so that intrigued me, how to get better at that,” Graham said. “You learn more from things like that than your successes. I leaned into people who had been through that too and meeting the best people in the world, and that’s incredible. You realize everyone goes through that stuff, the same things, and you’re capable of so much more. The only way you don’t get there is if you give up. It was an incredible learning experience.”
Graham only managed to make it to a handful of competitions between then and his first time qualifying for the 2018 championship. When he won the competition, he said it felt “amazing” to accomplish his goal.
“It felt amazing to have finally achieved it, to hold the trophy and acknowledge the hard work,” Graham said. “It’s an intense amount of work you have to go through on your own to achieve something like that. So, I’m very grateful that I persevered to achieve something like that.”
As far as training goes, Graham said he used to train a half hour every weekday and three hours on the weekends. However, since he has had two daughters, now ages 2-and-a-half and eight months, he’s cut that back to just a half-hour every day. During his post-competition interview at the 2022 USA Memory Championships, he said he sometimes practices with his older daughter for fun.
“I memorize while she’s watching her Disney show, or sometimes she’s on my lap poking to try to grab my cards or my timer, and she says the same cards. I’ll say the card, six of diamonds, and she’ll parrot it, six of diamonds, so she’s helped me a lot with the pressure,” Graham said.
Graham was able to qualify for the World Memory Sports Council’s 2019 World Memory Championships, which was held in Wuhan, China in December of that year. Graham finished in 22nd place out of 490 competitors, placing fourth in word and card events. He was one of only three Americans to compete.
Graham jokes that in everyday life, he’s “not allowed to forget anyone’s names ever,” but that practically, his memory can be used for more things than just competition.
“I use it to remember people, I remember their names and what they tell me, their hobbies and things like that, but anything I’m pouring myself into with my business or a book I’m reading, I know exactly how to retain the info I want to long-term,” Graham said. “So I can digest a book to distill it down and know the techniques to keep it in my mind so I can use it and not lose it.”
Looking ahead, Graham says he wants to go back and win a third USA Memory Championship, and potentially compete in more international tournaments. Either way, he says at this point, memory is a “pursuit of mastery” for him.
“It’s a pursuit of mastery at this point to be able to do something that people in this world can’t fathom, to know what that feels like internally and apply that skillset, and apply that skill of improving, because I’ve gotten to an elite level,” Graham said. “I apply that level to my business, I apply that improvement to my life, my kids. I think that’s the biggest thing for me, that’s what makes it fun.”
Overall, Graham said even though it may look daunting at the outset, anyone can have a better memory.
“There’s techniques for this, and people can improve their memories with these techniques and an understanding of what your brain wants to remember,” Graham said. “If you improve and excel and become elite in one area of your life, you can do it with other areas, so that’s what I enjoy the most.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or email@example.com.