Michael Dorsey headed south yesterday to go for the gold.
In this Olympian summer, Dorsey, 18, won't be sprinting the 100 meters, slinging the discus or even wrestling, his sport at Randallstown High School.
The aspiring preacher and broadcast journalist left Baltimore-Washington International Airport at dawn to compete in oratory at the NAACP's "Olympics of the Mind" in Charlotte, N.C.
The two-day competition will bring more than 700 black youths from across the country -- all local medal winners in 24 categories ranging from poetry to physics -- to the civil rights group's annual convention, which opens today.
The program is known as ACT-SO, for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. Founded in 1977, ACT-SO aims to invest young blacks' chemistry experiments and architectural models with a bit of the glitter that accompanies slam-dunks and touchdowns.
Even as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's survival was imperiled over the past two years by financial mismanagement and internal battles, volunteers quietly held ACT-SO together. The program's annual awards ceremony and talent showcase has become a sentimental favorite of the NAACP convention.
"When you see young people gather together not for violence, not to mess up anything, but to show their talents, that's real uplifting," Dorsey said.
Dorsey will declaim "Challenge," an original speech about the need for African-American men to rise above society's often negative view of them. He considers it an honor to represent Baltimore at the ACT-SO nationals for the third year in a row.
"But it will be even more of an honor if I could actually win this year," he said.
Baltimore is sending 12 youths to compete, including another three-time contestant, Warren Wolf Jr., 16, a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts. He won the bronze medal for
contemporary instrumental music last year in Minneapolis.
This year, Wolf will broaden his quest for a gold medal by also competing in two other categories: music composition, with his jazz piece for piano and synthesizers entitled "Tom and Jerry"; and classical music, playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto on the marimba.
Wolf has played music since he was 3 and has toured regionally with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but he has been impressed with the quality of the ACT-SO competition.
"My first year was kind of rough. I thought I could breeze through, and I went in with a huge ego," he said. "But when I heard all these people play, it was, 'Oh, my goodness, how can I compete?' Everybody's really talented."
The ACT-SO competition has become a Wolf family activity. Wolf's parents load up their Ford van with the young musician's equipment and drive to the NAACP convention while the young competitors fly there at no cost to their families.
Warren Wolf Sr., a city social studies teacher, said ACT-SO has been instrumental, so to speak, in his son's development. "Being able to compete with others has allowed him to see other African-American kids who have talents that are equal to his own. It keeps him motivated," he said.
ACT-SO keeps Warren Wolf Sr. motivated, too. He savors the moment at the annual awards ceremony when hundreds of high-spirited, proud black youths from all over America march into the arena. "You take stock of the gifts we do have as a people," he said. "To see them all in one room is awesome."
Juan Smith, 16, who will be a senior this fall at Milford Mill Academy, is a newcomer to ACT-SO. Smith, who wants to be a doctor, will represent Baltimore in biology with his experiment, "Can Caffeine Affect the Memory of Laboratory Mice?"
"Even if I lose, I'm still proud of myself because I made it to the nationals," he said.
With the NAACP on the mend, President Kweisi Mfume wants to dramatically expand the ACT-SO program as part of a "youth movement" for the civil rights group.
Mfume has named Rhonda Wilson, 24, a Randallstown High School graduate and former aide to Rep. Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to run the program. He also moved ACT-SO from its former Chicago base to the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters, where it will be directly under his wing.
Wilson said she planned to launch a "major public relations campaign" next school year to increase ACT-SO participation, which now numbers 200 NAACP branches.
"You hear so much about African-American students doing terrible things, but there are 700 here doing wonderful things," she said.
George Hill, volunteer chairman of Baltimore ACT-SO, whose alumni include actress Jada Pinkett, said about 70 area students participated this year. They worked with adult volunteers to polish their projects and performances. The annual budget is about $10,000, including convention travel and lodging.