Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

Local speed puzzler set to compete in Utah contest

Sep 07, 2023 02:12PM ● By Julie Slama

Cottonwood Heights resident Mindy Whiting, left, took part in the national competition in October 2022 where her four-member team from different states placed fourth. (Photo courtesy of Mindy Whiting)

Putting together a 500-piece puzzle may be a relaxing family activity that takes part over a weekend.

But for one Cottonwood Heights woman, the challenge of interlocking loops and sockets as fast as possible is what’s comforting and fun. 

Mindy Whiting, the mother of two Ridgecrest Elementary students, is a speed puzzler.

Whiting is ranked 16th nationally and will be one of the speed puzzlers competing Sept. 9 at the CR Hamilton Sports Complex, 3700 W. 13800 South in Riverton. 

“I want to get faster,” said the speed puzzler. “I’m competitive with myself not against other people.”

The competition is expected to attract up to 40 individual competitors, 40 pair puzzlers and 20 four-member teams.

Whiting plans to compete as an individual as well as in the pair competition with Bountiful’s Kyle Kossin, who is ranked 23rd nationally.

“I’ve actually never puzzled with him, but I feel like we’re neck and neck in a lot of competitions,” she said.

Whiting also will compete on Team Whiting along with her husband, Ryan, sister-in-law Megan and mother-in-law, Lori.

“My husband likes puzzles, but he doesn’t necessarily do it for the speed. It’s more to spend time with each another,” she said. 

Official worldwide speed puzzling competitions began in 2019 and nationally, the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association was formed in 2020 when a boom in puzzling came about during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families who wanted to put together a puzzle while at home were hard pressed to find one as puzzles were backordered, while those who were new to the sport of racing the clock turned to compete online against each other.

Whiting grew up doing puzzles at the family cabin in Weber Canyon.

“We’d go there in the summers and put together puzzles. I remember as a kid that I wanted to make money doing it, but I knew no one pays to have someone put together a puzzle as a career. As a teenager, I liked doing this cartoony-looking puzzle and I kept doing it. I would pick up a piece and know exactly where it went. Each time I did it, I’d time myself and I’d get faster. Then, as I grew up, I stopped doing puzzles. I had the mindset, ‘I’ve got to be productive; I can’t waste my time doing something for fun,’” she said. “When COVID came, I still had puzzles with lots of extra time and being stuck at home, so I pulled out a few puzzles.”

She learned her parents still had the cartoon golf puzzle she liked growing up and “15 to 20 years later, I was still able to do it in 40-something minutes, faster than before. So, I decided to look to see if there was a community that does speed puzzling.”

After learning about USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association and its upcoming competition, she signed up as a beginner—and came in first place.

“They told me since I was under a certain amount of time, I was considered a pro,” Whiting said.

Whiting also came to know Jonathan Clark in Texas who created Speed Puzzling. He, along with others, gave her tips.

“I used to do my puzzles where I wouldn’t dump them out on the table. I would just open a tab and I’d pick up pieces that stood out to me. But Jonathan said it’s usually faster when you dump and sort them. I thought that’s too chaotic. I like my puzzle area to be ordered, not cluttered with pieces, so it took me a while to try that strategy. He was right,” she said. “I’ve learned a few things along the way. When I first look at the puzzle, I ask myself, ‘What stands out to me? Are there any vertical lines? What pieces pop out?’ and I grab those to do early. I don’t always do border first; sometimes doing the border first will slow me down. Every puzzle, I look at the puzzle and come up with a strategy as to what I’m going to do. Generally, I dump, pull the edges pieces out and any others to make any piles as I’m flipping them. I’m either going to do those right away or I’m getting them out of the way.”

Now as a Speed Puzzling member, Whiting receives puzzles every month to compete individually.

“When they arrive, we can’t see the puzzle. We all get online at the same time, and Jonathan tells us when we can open our package and when to start the timer, then we start—and it’s fun,” she said, adding that she stands when she puts together the puzzle “because it gives me a bird’s eye view and I can see everything more clearly.”

For every month the past two years, Whiting has competed in the 300-, 500- and 1,000-piece speed puzzling contests. Her preference is 500 pieces.

“I feel 300s, it’s 20 to 30 minutes and then, I’m done. It’s a rush, way too fast. Five hundred is 45 minutes to an hour and it doesn’t feel so fast that it’s over before you can start and it’s not too long like the 1,000s. My fastest 1,000 is barely under two hours, but I average two and a half hours. I don’t mind doing that, but I have to make sure I have a good chunk of time,” she said.

Last month, Whiting added her husband and her fifth-grade son, Andrew, to compete as a team.

“Usually, teams are four people, but he wanted to join us, so I said OK, let him do it. My son normally doesn’t want to do puzzles at all, preferring to be more active. This time he wanted to join, but then he’d take breaks and get a snack, which was OK. My first-grade daughter (Claire) likes puzzles, and she’s good at them, but that day she wanted to play with friends, which is totally fine. I don’t want to force my kids to do this, but to have fun when they do,” she said.

In person, Whiting took part in the national competition October 2022 in San Diego. She partnered with Grey Rogers from Louisiana to finish second in pairs, and her four-member team placed fourth. Individually, she was 14th. 

Her puzzle-shaped trophies from both in-person and online contests are tucked away as she focuses more on the people she competes with as well as improving her time.

Whiting also has attended camps where she teamed up with puzzlers from Louisiana, Minnesota, Florida and New York and other states. 

“It’s fun; you meet new people from all over and everyone is completely different,” she said.

It was with a group of four top puzzlers from different states that Whiting teamed up for the world competition in Spain in 2021. However, it was canceled because of the pandemic. By 2022, rules had changed so they couldn’t take more than the four puzzlers, and since there were still some COVID restrictions, she opted out, hoping to compete another year.

For the past year, Whiting carves out time from being a mother and from her part-time job to practice her speed puzzling, usually on the kitchen table as it has the best lighting in the house. 

“My kids are my priority, but I for sure do one puzzle a week, usually over the weekends. If I only have an hour then I would just do a 500, but if I’m going to have lots of downtime, I’ll put out a 1,000 or 1,500,” she said, adding that she has a “whole closet of 300-400 puzzles. I like grid puzzles because they go fast. I did one last month with all the different Harry Potter book covers, so it was nine different puzzles in one. I also like ones that are more cartoony with drawn images or ones that have lots of different colors and textures. I don’t enjoy scenery or landscapes; I feel the trees and all the foliage are harder.”

While there are numerous puzzle manufacturers, Ravensburger has replaced Springbok as her favorite. 

“I used to like only the Springboks and their random shapes, but the pieces are too hard to put together. Ravensburger really grew on me. Their pieces fit well and I like all their Disney villain puzzles,” she said.

Jigsaw puzzles are her forte although she has done Sudokus, crosswords—even meeting Will Shortz, the “New York Times” crossword editor and National Public Radio puzzle master, and has helped her son with his Rubik’s Cube.

“I like the feeling of being able to complete something and have it come together fast. I try to beat my own goal. There are these people who are just always 10 minutes ahead of me. I don’t think I’ll ever get there even if I practice,” she said.

Whiting compares it to when she ran marathons, beating her time at each race and eventually qualifying and competing in Boston in 2007 and 2008.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be the fastest runner, but my goal was to get better and faster. The same with puzzles; I’m wanting to beat my own records. I keep a spreadsheet of 200 puzzles that I’ve done and the time that it took me to do and then I’ll record also if I’ve done it a second or third time with those times,” she said. “I know it doesn’t sound relaxing, but for me, it is. I’m able to clear my mind, decompress, and get lost with the pieces of the image I’m creating.”λ