In hindsight, the symbolism was a bit on the nose.
Tyce Dahlberg, Marc Wodahl, Jacob Velasquez and Cody Milmine stood at the shadow of Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World waiting in line for rides and practicing their answers to questions about technology, personal finance and consumer rights.
While other tourists gave them weird glances and wondered just what these high school boys were up to, they didn’t mind. They knew they were living a fairy tale – one with a happy ending so unexpected that Walt Disney himself might have found it contrived.
“We truly were the Cinderella team,” said Michelle Dahlberg, who, along with Kami Kennedy, is co-coach of the Buffalo High School LifeSmarts team composed of Velasquez, Dahlberg, Wodahl and Milmine. “One of our first competitions was against the No. 3 team in the nation. We shouldn’t have won that round, and we weren’t supposed to take third in the nation. But it’s a testament to these guys and their friendship that they got as far as they did.”
Velasquez, Dahlberg, Wodahl and Milmine, who are all BHS seniors, represented Wyoming during the national LifeSmarts competition in Orlando, Florida, from April 14 to 16. The team took third in the nation out of 42 teams.
“The first-place team from Rhode Island had kids who were going to Princeton, Harvard and Yale,” Milmine said. “We were just a bunch of Wyoming boys who are going to be going to UW. I’m really proud that we did as well as we did.”
LifeSmarts is a trivia contest with questions in five categories: consumer rights, personal finance, the environment, technology, and health and safety. Students compete in teams to answer questions with both speed and accuracy.
On the East Coast, LifeSmarts has a big following and students compete in state and regional competitions, Michelle Dahlberg said. But the competition hasn’t caught on as much in Wyoming. To qualify for nationals, students had to perform well on an online test.
Although the team had spent the previous month preparing for nationals, it was still a little intimidating when competition started in Orlando and the team had to make the switch from online tests to in-person competition, Velasquez said.
“I think the hardest part was just trying to think on your feet,” Velasquez said. “The question master read the questions, but you could buzz in at any time. So from the very start, we had to think about what the answer could be and beat others to the buzzing. It was kind of nerve-wracking because we had never competed face-to-face like that before, and we were kind of learning how to do it as we went along.”
But as the team advanced through the competition, they hit their stride, Tyce Dahlberg said.
“When we started, we were afraid to hit the buzzer because we didn’t want to get something wrong,” Tyce Dahlberg said. “But as we went along and we kept beating these teams from bigger schools, we just had more and more confidence in ourselves. At one point, we buzzed in when the quizmaster had only said the first two words of a question. And we got the answer right.”
It was a surreal experience to watch the team climb up the rankings, Michelle Dahlberg said.
“I’ve taken teams to this competition before and the highest we’ve ever ranked is 24th,” Dahlberg said. “So we were jazzed to be in the top 16. And the top eight. And then all of a sudden we were in the top three and we were like, ‘What is happening?’”
As quickly as the Cinderella story began, it ended in a glorious flame-out – a mistake so bad that some of the team members still hold their heads in their hands when recalling it. The quizmaster asked each student to name a stage of the economic cycle. Not a single member of the BHS team knew an answer.
“That’s the question we’ll always remember,” Wodahl said. “It was the finals and everybody was watching.”
Still the team had accomplished more than many thought possible. The students returned to Buffalo on April 17 with a third-place trophy. According to Wodahl, the award will stand as monument to the team’s friendship and teamwork.
“Some teams had just one or two kids who were answering all the questions,” Wodahl said. “That wasn’t us. Jacob won a round for us. So did Tyce. This wasn’t the work of one single person. We only did it by working together.”
Michelle agreed and said the team’s success was tied to a friendship the boys have had since elementary school.
“At the end of the day, their success really has a lot to do with how much these guys get along with each other,” Dahlberg said. “They just kind of merged into one brain during the competition, and you can only do that with people you’ve known and trusted your whole life.”
A different team will be next year’s Lifesmarts Cinderella story, and the year after that will bring another. The feats of the BHS team will eventually be forgotten. But the friendship will remain steadfast, Milmine said.
“The competition was great,” Milmine said. “But the real highlight was just spending some time with my friends.”