May 24, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Legoland champ triumphs in trial by fire--and ice

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Quickly, it is all about business, as all 23 pour their bins of Lego bricks onto their tables. The sound of bricks being shuffled and sifted is everywhere, a sound that would be familiar to anyone who's ever played with the iconic plastic bricks.

Some focus their attention by blocking out all external distractions and listening to music. Thus, at least three of the finalists have iPod headphones in their ears and are rocking out as they build.

And as the build-off began, some of the current master model builders looked as though they were having flashbacks.

"It's exciting," said Da Silva, who took part in a similar national search in 2004. "It's really strange, because we were doing this on the other side. So I'm nervous."

And for Kristi Klein, another master model builder who went through the 2004 search and who had helped select all 23 finalists, the competition was nerve-racking.

"I'm rooting for almost everyone," Klein said. "So I'm having a really hard time."

As 30 minutes of the two hours went by, the judges were already beginning to look for specific elements from the finalists.

"A lot of it now is just about their process," said Patrick DeMaria, Legoland's model shop manager and a judge. "I'm looking for people who know what they're building, who got right in and started their constructions. And also good use of color. I'm looking for something with flair."

There was certainly no shortage of that in evidence Tuesday.

Among the 23 finalists' models, there was a gorgeous Chinese dragon, a complex pirate-themed "park," a spaceship, three blind mice, an underwater scene and many other notable projects.

Poland, meanwhile, was building a snowman that was breathing fire, something that was clearly an unusual take on what might fit in at Legoland.

Narrowing the field
And for Klein, who had been asked to help narrow the field to four choices, the talent on display was making life difficult.

"It's getting to the point where I'm getting a little confused here," Klein said, "and I'm having trouble narrowing it down."

She also said she was sad that some of her favorite finalists didn't look like they would make the cut.

"It's hard," she said. "Some of the people I was really rooting for aren't bringing it home."

Still, it's clear that there are a lot of great models to choose from, and the judges are going to have a hard time making their selection.

"I'm about to run for Mexico," said DeMaria. "I'm a victim of my own success. There's too many talented people. Trying to narrow it down is going to be very difficult."

As time begins to run out, the finalists' models are coming more and more into shape. And amazingly, even with just 15 minutes to go, as they rushed to finish, they're still mostly looking calm and collected.

As time is called, the finalists begin to get up and stretch and walk around and, for the first time, look at what their fellow competitors have built.

Several of them are more than a little impressed by the dragon.

"That Chinese dragon over there (is) pretty sweet," said Barkdoll.

"That dragon is awesome," echoed Mikhail Blokh, a 29-year-old finalist from Los Angeles. "I'm glad I'm not a judge."

The three real judges, however, were now faced with the task of choosing a winner. So they began a slow walk around the competition area, inspecting each model and sometimes asking the builder some questions.

Soon, the judges went off together to discuss the finalists' work.

DeMaria quickly goes through his list of the 23 and talks the other two judges into narrowing the group down to four possible choices. They settle on Poland's fire-breathing snowman, Barkdoll's underwater scene, Clay Hervey's police officer and Hall's model of Gulliver and the Lilliputians.

It is clear, though, that DeMaria is really most interested in Poland and Hervey, in large part because of their performance in the skill tests and in personal interviews.

"Artistically, I like (Polands's) model better," DeMaria said. "What could be more ironic than a snowman breathing fire?"

A few minutes later, all 23 finalists gathered, and were given a certificate, one by one, for their participation in the competition. Then the four final choices were called up on stage.

And then, finally, after months of searching the country, Poland was crowned as Legoland's newest master model builder.

"I feel awesome," Poland said minutes later. "I can breathe again."

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Tech Tie In??
Yet another cnet article without a tech tie in. Cool maybe ... but there is no tech tie in.
Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
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