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The competition:

April 18, 2002

SAN BERNARDINO — Calipatria High School junior Joshua Balancio and senior Russell Fischer were handed a stack of heavy metal plates, a small piece of a metal pipe, a blueprint and a booth number.

"Skills Olympics" officials here told the competitors they only had one hour to weld the pieces together according to the diagram on the blueprint.

The teens hustled as they tried to find and get to their respective welding booths. Once there, Joshua and Russell flipped down the shields of their hoods.

Sparks started flying.

Meanwhile, all around them kids from big city high schools were welding together their own plates.

Russell remembers noting that some of his competitors had full leathers (expensive welding coats) and $140 hoods that were issued by their school.

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The two Calipatria High students only had the tools and gear they could afford to bring — although Russell noted his hood probably looked the best.

"Because of my art work," he said, referring to his being adorned with his custom art.

While the guys welded, their coach, Calipatria High shop teacher Wilton Goo, watched from outside the building with other instructors. He said he was as excited as the competitors.

"I could feel the adrenaline rush," Goo said.

To weld the pieces correctly, Joshua and Russell first had to figure out the proper way to do it. Welding the plates together at a VICA skills contest is like finishing a puzzle. One piece connects to that, which must be welded to that one.

If competitors make a mistake or their welds aren't clean, they have to cut the weld and start all over again. The moment right before deciding to do that is stressful because there is only so much time to finish.

Luckily, according to Goo, Joshua and Russell had already put together a similar piece in practice so they were able to assemble their pieces without much trouble. After they were finished with their pieces, the guys took the still hot metal contraptions to the judges.

The judges looked at how smooth and strong the welds were and the overall quality of the piece.

According to those judges, the work of Joshua and Russell was worthy of a silver medal for each.

Goo said the contests were broken down so 20 or so high- schoolers competed against each other at one time.

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