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University of Idaho Alumni Office - Moscow
Physical location:
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Mailing Address:
875 Perimeter Drive MS 3232
Moscow, ID 83844-3232
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Nelson Dellis

With Memory in Mind

UI graduate's documentary on two-time U.S. memory champion invited to D.C. film fest

By Alexiss Turner

The rise of social media has revamped the holiday season. A home-cooked meal can't be enjoyed if there isn't a photo taken of it first, and online posts replaying the day’s events are uploaded faster than the speed of conversation.

Ana Overgaard Ana Overgaard

For Ana Overgaard ’13, it’s as if people have forgotten to remember - to really think about moments and how they are stored emotionally.

The University of Idaho broadcast and digital media graduate’s latest project is an attempt to help people rediscover their memory-sensory capabilities. For the past two years, she’s traversed the mind of Nelson Dellis, a two-time U.S. memory champion.

Overgaard’s completed work, "Ace of Diamonds," a 30-minute documentary on the memory consultant and avid mountain climber will be part of the 2014 D.C. Independent Film Festival Feb. 19-23. The documentary will show at 7 p.m. Feb. 22. Dellis will be at the event and offer the audience a chance to test their own memory skills. Purchase Tickets »

Dellis' capabilities stretch much further than the day-to-day battles of the average individual. He's not memorizing a grocery list or putting names to a room full of strangers. He's competing in memory competitions at the national and international level and holds U.S. records for memorizing a shuffled deck of cards in 63 seconds and 303 digits in 5 minutes.

“The importance isn't on being the world's greatest or attaining accolades,” Overgaard said. “It’s about knowing how to enjoy life in the moment as it happens, and to be very conscious of how we take it in. There is a real body and mind connection.”

Overgaard met Dellis while visiting her sister in Boston. At the time, she mentioned creating a documentary as a joke. It wasn’t until she received a grant from the University of Idaho that the idea again came forward.

Dellis’ dedication to mental athleticism started after watching his grandmother suffer from Alzheimer's disease. When she died in 2009, he began memory training daily and entered his first competition later that year.

He took first place in the U.S. Memory Championship in 2011 and 2012 and second in 2013.

“What they do really is like monkey tricks,” Overgaard said. “Simply turning abstract information of numbers and words into bizarre stories that they can visualize with more multi-sensory triggers.”

Dellis founded Climb for Memory, a nonprofit to fund Alzheimer's research. He's made two attempts to climb Mount Everest and has scaled Mount Rainier and Mount McKinley, among others.

Before graduation, Overgaard balanced her rigorous filming schedule with her commitment to the UI women’s basketball team and her sorority. When she traveled to London in mid-December 2012 for the World Memory Championships, she was forced to miss a game against Washington State University. When the Vandals made it to the WAC Championship in spring 2013, she hired a photographer to follow Dellis to the National Memory Championship in New York.

Nelson Dellis Nelson Dellis prepares for the 2013 National Memory Championship
in New York.

“The theme I originally aimed for was to show how average people can to incredible things if they are driven by a higher purpose and have resilience, while also hitting on the importance of paying attention to our mental health and Alzheimer's,” she said.

Since the project's completion, Overgaard has been busy entering the film in festivals including Portland International, Seattle International, Banff and Big Sky.

A filmmaker at heart, Overgaard said she discovered a newfound respect for the documentary process.

“I found new opportunities, new characters, new angles, and learned so much about the subject that I became a memory pro myself,” she said. “Each shoot was like facing my greatest fear. I felt fulfilled every time I got to talk to someone interested in it. If it makes even a few people ask questions and look into things further, I feel satisfied.”