DOWNTOWN — Tammy McLeod has always been a little competitive.
Just months after picking up ballroom dancing, McLeod, 32, was already training to compete. After a venture into scuba diving, McLeod took more and more classes until she became a certified rescue diver. And most recently? McLeod turned her interest in Sudoku — everyone’s favorite time-passing numbers game — into a national championship title.
“I sometimes find it hard to do things just for the sake of doing,” McLeod, who works for Google in Santa Monica, said. “If there’s a competitive aspect involved, it makes it that much more exciting.”
McLeod got serious about Sudoku less than three years ago while she was traveling on business. Though she had tried the game before, this time she really got hooked. Within a few months, McLeod had entered herself in the National Sudoku Championship.
“It’s open to everybody, which is why I decided to just try it,” McLeod said. “I said, ‘Hey, why not.’”
A few qualifying rounds later, that “Hey, why not” turned into a second place win.
A year later in 2008, McLeod returned to the competition to place third, and this year, in Philadelphia, at the end of October, McLeod beat the two-time world Sudoku champion to snatch first.
“Surprise is really the biggest emotion I’ve been feeling,” McLeod said of winning the title. “I was just happy to be in the finals.”
Having completed her puzzle flawlessly in 7 minutes and 41 seconds, McLeod earned herself a $10,000 prize, an iPod, a trophy and a spot on the U.S. Sudoku team. She will compete in the World Sudoku Championship back in Philadelphia in April.
Despite having three major Sudoku competitions under her belt, McLeod still gets nervous.
“When I’m up there I have to focus to try to get all the nervousness out,” McLeod, who has also participated in math and chess tournaments, said. “I just pay attention to nothing else but the paper in front of me, and that’s how I get through it.”
This focus is impressive, considering McLeod has two very important things on her mind: her husband of three years and her 14-month-old daughter who both traveled to Philadelphia to cheer her on.
“My husband is very supportive,” McLeod said. “It’s very difficult and a lot of work to travel with a young child.”
Originally from Singapore, McLeod has done a fair amount of traveling herself.
The programmer for Google’s Picasa Web Albums moved to the U.S. as a student to attend MIT. From there, she was drawn to the West Coast, where the winters weren’t quite so harsh and the climate reminded her more of home.
“I go back every one or two years,” McLeod said of Singapore. “In September, I brought the baby back to visit her grandparents. It’s hard, but every time I move I have a good reason for it … Moving is just something that needs to be done.”
McLeod’s has moved extensively around Southern California as well, having lived everywhere from San Diego to Orange County. Now working for Google, McLeod started her family just beyond the city’s borders, living on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A.
“I’m comfortable there because there’s so many people from all the world living in the area. I’m not out of place,” McLeod said. “I guess cosmopolitan is good word for that. I can be part of this city even though I haven’t been there all that long.”
McLeod also feels it’s good to have finally settled.
“I’ve lived in many, many places,” McLeod said. “Staying in one place feels good.”
Having been in the Santa Monica area for four years now, McLeod says she loves both the feeling of acceptance and the historic Santa Monica Pier. Though work and parenting don’t give her much time on her own, McLeod enjoys focusing on the baby and family field trips on the weekends.
“We might bring her to one of the parks … We might go to the zoo in L.A. [or] bring her to the Farmers’ Market,” McLeod said. “We bring her out and about to eat stuff, do things.”
Keeping up with the busy life of a parent, McLeod is thankful that Sudoku is something she can pick up even while she’s looking after her daughter. About a month or two before a competition, McLeod begins to practice Sudoku every day. Some of her other hobbies, however, will have to wait until the baby is a little older.
“To go on a trip to dive, I need 5 or 6 hours. For dancing, I need to practice and take lessons,” McLeod said. “I can’t right now, [but] I plan to go back in a few years.”
Until then, McLeod will continue Sudoku. She says she never plans on starting another activity until she stumbles across something new that piques her interest. In this way, McLeod can feed her competitive appetite and watch herself improve.
“When I do puzzles, I like to time myself. I have a way of seeing my progress, of different ways to measure my own ability,” McLeod said. “I think that I like being able to compare [myself] to other people or compare myself to myself to see my own improvement.”