skip to main content


FHS 2016 graduate Mike Noga highlights his trip to Louisville, Kentucky for SkillsUSA Nationals. Ultimately finishing 6th in the nation in photography, he updated his week-long trip every night right here in his blog (the newest posts at the top):


man in a red suit standing in front of Freedom Hall Convention Center


DAY 6 - SATURDAY, June 25


This will be my final blog entry. I am currently on my way home and I can't wait to get some sleep. Leaving Kentucky and SkillsUSA, I've learned a lot and I've even taught some people a few things about photography. I've gotta say, this is an experience that I won't forget for a long time. I didn’t finish in the top three, but I did finish No. 6 in the nation! Even though I am still the state champ and not the national champ, I could care less. I don't stop at one loss. That's right, I'll be back (a la Arnold Schwarzenegger). I now know how the system works and what is expected. So get ready for me, SkillsUSA! I will definitely be training and teaching future Foothill High School competitors on how to win. And I'm sure we'll have a national champion eventually. This is an experience which isn't about winning (sometimes it is); it's about the connections and knowledge that you acquire. Fortunately I was able to acquire both. Many of you may be asking yourselves this question: "So is he mad that he lost?" If I were mad, there would be no blog (or it'd be a just sentence or two). I'm not mad that I lost. Of course winning would be better, but I got more out of this than just one medal. And for you future FHS competitors, I have a simple quote to hopefully motivate you to leave your comfort zone and face your fears. The quote goes like this: "Take every chance you get in life, because some things only happen once." So I encourage you guys to compete and give it all you got! Now I'd like to say a few things to the people who helped me out. First off, Foothill High School Principal Mr. Brian Welborn, I'd like to thank you for finding the necessary funding needed for me to go on this trip. And I'd also like to thank you for believing in me and encouraging me. I'm very thankful for your help. I'd also like to thank the TRUSD board and the district for helping with other expenses and for allowing me to be the awards night photographer. It was a great experience and an interesting one. And last but not least, I'd like to thank you, Mr. Dommer. You've invested countless hours and finances into my skill. Not once did you say No to something. You were always there to lighten up my mood during stressful weeks. And if I had made a mistake somewhere (like not naming the pictures correctly) you'd laugh it off and correct me. I hope our friendship lasts for a long time. And hopefully you'll still let me use the D4s to shoot sports :) Thank you, Mr. Dommer! Those of you that I didn't name but you helped out also, I'd like to thank you. And to all my readers, I'd like to thank you for the encouraging emails you guys sent out. It helped out a lot. And hopefully you guys had a great time reading this blog. Thank you and goodbye.  

large group of people seated in a convention center
(Above) Click HERE or on the image above to view the scene at the convention center during closing ceremonies and the awards show. All 50 states (plus D.C.) were seated in sections throughout Freedom Hall. About half-way through the video, the delegation from Arkansas finally showed up and couldn't figure out how many seats were in their row. They finally figured it out.

DAY 5 - FRIDAY, June 24

One more day and I leave for home! Today was a fun day I'd say. I started my day doing some laps in the hotel pool, then we went to the photography debriefing and sat there for a few hours. Got some advice/tips on how to improve my photography. The judges went over what was good and what wasn’t so good about what all of the contestants did. When the debriefing was over, the fun started. As we were driving out of the parking lot, we decided to stop by Kentucky Kingdom and possibly buy some tickets. Turns out the tickets from the day before were still being accepted because of the rain. We hurried on back to the hotel and got our tickets and GoPro cameras. We got back to the park and went in line for the same roller coaster from yesterday (which we were in line for when it started to rain). Eventually it was our turn, but some pimple-faced kid took the GoPro away due to safety issues (there were no safety issue because the GoPro was secured to my chest, but the guy wanted to be a big man). The ride was really fun and when we got off, Mr. Dommer was saying how his head hurt because his brain was bouncing around in his skull so much. It was quite funny because I was kind of experiencing the same thing. The next ride (another roller coaster) did Mr. Dommer in and he was done for the day (see x-ray, below). I did get video footage of that one – be sure to check it out. Anyways we (I) went on to many other rides. I got a few of them on video and some they didn't allow me to. Overall I went on about six different rides and by the sixth one, I felt like my organs had changed places. So at that moment I called it quits and we went to eat. This time we went to the local pizza place that we went to on Tuesday. Their pizza is undoubtedly the best pizza I've had in my lifetime. After pizza we went back to the hotel. Mr. Dommer went to his room to rest and I went out to watch the fireworks show. I think we woke up more than half the hotel guests with our fireworks. They were louder than the thunder storm! I met a lot of new people at that show. But the best part was the rare horseshoe pin that I got from one of the staff at the hotel (the hotel is called Horseshoe). They found out we were doing pins in our competition and so they created 80 rare pins. I got pin number 80 out of 80. Anyways the hotel staff came out and said we had to finish up because it was almost 2 a.m., which is past curfew for us. We lit off what we could but we also threw away a few fireworks because there wasn't enough time to lite them. After that I went back to my hotel room and went to sleep. The awards ceremony updates will be in the next installment of this blog. Tune in.


a man swimming
(Above) Here I am doing my morning laps in the hotel Olympic-sized swimming pool. I was on lap 325 (butterfly stroke) when Mr. Dommer said it was time to head over to the convention center for debriefing.

(Next few pics, below) Shots from our afternoon at Kentucky Kingdom.

first person view sitting in a rollercoaster

man seated in a ride at an amusement park

man riding a swing amusement park ride

man sitting in a ferris wheel with text Video
(Above) We had a lot of fun at Kentucky Kingdom, an amusement park right next to the convention center. Click HERE or on the image above to watch a seven-minute video of some of the action!

(Below) Mr. Dommer's brain hurt after being slammed around inside his skull so much from the two roller coasters. That was it for him the rest of the day, but he helped film and take pictures of me on the next bunch of rides.

an x-ray of a human head

DAY 4 - THURSDAY, June 23

Today was a bit of an unpredictable yet very interesting day. The thunderous rain was unlike anything I have experienced in my life. Read till the end to find out why. Anyways, my day started off a lot like yesterday. I woke up at around six once again and got ready for the day. Then I went to Mr. Dommers hotel room, and this time he was doing pull ups. No I'm kidding, he was still doing his pushups like every other day. After he was done, we got ready and drove off to the competition. On the way to the competition Mr. Dommer mentioned how we haven't seen a single homeless person in Indiana or Kentucky. I was also amazed by this fact. We continued on our journey to the convention center, but this time without a GPS system. That’s right... we memorized the roads there and back. But Mr. Dommer still takes the wrong turns from time to time. I don't blame him, because I accidentally told him to turn somewhere and we ended up having to drive an extra five miles to fix the mistake (I’m holding the phone as navigator). But I don't specialize in directions, I specialize in photography. Eventually we got to the convention center and I went to my contest location. The tasks for today were quite simple but required a lot of design and creativity skills. I managed to finish my assignments in time and I was quite happy with the results. I got to meet a lot of great people and I learned so much. I even taught Mr. Dommer some of the stuff I learned. Anyways while I was sitting by my computer for six and a half hours, Mr. Dommer was walking around and stopping by many student displays and stands. He got me a lot of cool stuff (dentist tools, a toothbrush, a t-shirt, some melted candy which I have yet to try, and a lot more). So thanks for that, Mr. Dommer. Finally the competition was over for the day and we headed back to the hotel. On the way to the hotel, it started to get cloudy. We made it eventually and we went inside. I went to get ready for dinner and so did Mr. Dommer. As I was getting ready, I heard a loud boom. I didn't think anything of it but then it went off again. I was curious as to what it was, so I opened my curtains to see what it was. No, we were not being bombed. It was a thunder storm outside! I was happy and sad at the same time. Happy that it was raining, but sad that we couldn't go to Kentucky Kingdom, an amusement park. It was what I had waited for, but now I can't even go. But I'm a man, so I did what real men do. I went out to eat. And that was the greatest decision I made in my life. We went to the buffet in the casino. On the way to the buffet, Mr. Dommer pulled off two of his classy jokes. One was the elevator music ring tone. We were going down to the lobby in the elevator and they had some cheesy music playing in the elevator. Mr. Dommer pulled out his phone and said "Hello?" but then he looks up and says, "Hey that’s my ringtone." One girl in the elevator got the joke and laughed, while the others just stood there and stared at us like we were criminals or something. Then when we got out of the elevator, we walked down a long hallway that had automatic doors leading to the parking lot. There was this group of girls walking in our direction. Mr. Dommer asked one of them, "Hey I forgot to close my windows in my car, could you run out there and close them for me?" (Remember it's still pouring outside, coming down in sheets) one of the girls actually agreed to do it! But we all laughed. We got to the buffet, and boy was it good! Everything tasted so fresh and tender. After we finished eating, we walked back to our hotel rooms to get some stuff. While we were walking we noticed that it was sunny and dry outside. A text to the director verified that the event was on. So we decided to go to Kentucky Kingdom, even though the weather report said it was going to pour in two hours. We drove out a few minutes later. Once we arrived, the lines were kind of long. So we found the Ferris wheel ride, which had a small line, and we waited. I had the GoPro on a chest mount and I recorded some of the ride. After we got off of the ride, we went to a roller coaster which had a really long line. Mr. Dommer said it would be worth waiting for. I agreed with him and waited, but the weather was acting up again. 30 minutes into the line, it starts to get cloudy and the wind picked up speed. Soon the park staff told us we had to leave the park ASAP because it was going to pour. Of course everyone still stayed in line because the clouds didn't look as bad. But after a few lighting strikes, everyone headed towards the exit, including us. We then waited in the car and hoped the storm would be over by the time the park closes. While waiting we got some photos and video footage of a lightning strike near us. It was awesome because we both got it on video. But then the rain got worse and so we left. On the way to the hotel we played some rainy themed music (Black Sabbath) and we battled the harsh rain. Thankfully we made it back to the hotel in one piece. And then it stopped raining. While I was typing up this blog, it started to rain again, and the lightning was way worse than before. I fell asleep to the melody of the rain hitting my hotel window. That is why this blog is up a little late. Hope you guys enjoyed reading this one, I still have a few more days here in Kentucky. So tune in. Thank you.


large group of people walking around a convention center
(Above) We arrived around 7:20 to the convention center. Contestants were allowed onto the floor at 7:30 to set up. Observers were let in at 8:00 for the start.

(Below) The judging criteria was posted.

2016 Judging criteria for photography

man seated eating
(Above) I wanted to try the restaurant buffet in the hotel so we could save some time and get to the amusement park next to the convention center, Kentucky Kingdom.

a ferris wheel

man taking pictures on a ferris wheel
(Above and Below) The park boasts seven roller coasters, all with long lines, so we took a ride on the Ferris wheel to get some nice shots of the area from up high.

an amusement park

people waiting in line for a roller coaster
(Above) We got in line for the first roller coaster and shuffled along slowly for about 30 minutes as the sky darkened. It wasn't looking promising.

(Below) The park was then evacuated as a lightning storm moved through Louisville. We just made it back to our car before getting some shots of the blasts. No word yet on a rain check from Kentucky Kingdom. Back to the hotel for the night. I tried to go to the hotel indoor swimming pool -- also closed due to the weather.

a bolt of lighting behind cars in a parking lot

DAY 3 - WEDNESDAY, June 22

Wednesday was the competition day! I woke up at around 6 a.m. Eastern time (3 a.m. Pacific time) and got ready for the day. I ate somewhat of a healthy breakfast (chips...) to start the day off. Fell asleep pretty late last night (1 a.m.)  but I wasn't a single bit tired when I awoke. Then I went in to Mr. Dommer's hotel room and he was finishing off his last set of one-arm pushups. He asked me how many I did, and I replied "10" (I didn't want my photography arm to be sore so 10 was the limit for today). He then responded by saying, "Really, well I did 11." It’s a never-ending cycle, he always seems to beat me by one. I came to Louisville for the photography competition, not the pushup competition. So I'll let him have that one. Eventually we got our gear ready for the photo competition and this time we double checked to make sure we didn’t have an incident similar to the resume scare. There was no room for error, because today was a major day. On the way to the competition there was some heavy traffic, but we made it in time since we left early enough to handle that. As soon as we arrived, the photo group coordinator gave us a sheet of paper with a ton of instructions on there. I knew almost everything on there so it was not frightening to me seeing all the instructions. I saw some other kids kinda staring at them and probably wondering what the heck most of the stuff meant. We were supposed to do a photo shoot at the Kentucky Kingdom (an amusement park next door). But it was raining and so the group coordinator changed the shoot location, which ended up being inside the convention center. We were all given the same theme (balanced action) for our shoot. Then they released us for three hours. If we were late coming back, they'd take off a good chunk of our points. I went out and shot a lot of fish eye pictures and a few others (these will be available to see once the contest is over). I got back at around 11:40 and quickly uploaded my pictures. Looking through them, I was confident and happy with the results and I chose four of my best pictures to submit. An hour or so later, I did a studio product shoot. It was relatively simple and straight forward. I can't give any details until the competition is over. After I was done with the studio shoot, I chose my picture and waited to be interviewed. I visually scanned the interviewers and mentally chose an elderly man to interview with. I figured he was my best bet because of how calm his posture was and he looked experienced. Luckily for me, he invited me over for the interview. That doesn't mean I hate the other interviewers! They were actually very nice but also busy and had different contestants. The interview went excellent. The interviewer was happy to know that I was from California and he asked me a little bit about how I started photography. At the end of the interview he told me a little bit about himself. He had over 35 years of experience with studio and photography work. The interview was then over and I was done for the day. Mr. Dommer picked me up and we drove back to the hotel. I rested a little (a three-hour nap) and then later that night we wanted to go out to eat. The hotel has a few on-site restaurants but a lot of them were closed (it was 10 p.m. already). We wanted to go to this one restaurant in the casino, but the security guard, Roscoe (that's not his real name; I forgot his real name), didn't let us through because someone wasn't 21 years old (it's pretty obvious who that someone is). That was actually a good thing that we didn't eat at the casino because we went out to a Kentucky-famous restaurant (The Silver Dollar). We enjoyed some ribs and I got a BBQ pulled-pork sandwich. The food was delicious and the people there were very friendly. After dinner we headed back to the hotel. We parked the car and took an elevator to the 3rd floor. Once we exited the elevator we were heading right on a corner. There was this group of women walking and we startled one of them unintentionally as they didn’t see us. It was hilarious. Well I am heading off to sleep. There will be another blog tomorrow, so stay tuned.

man doing one handed push ups
(Above) Mr. Dommer starts each day with a set of 100 one-arm pushups. At least that's what he says.

(Below) The photography competition was set up in the middle of the convention floor, with photo prints set up on stands around the contestants. There were stations for a studio shoot, downloading images, printing, and an interview.

photo prints set up on stands in a convention center

motorcycles set up behind a SkillsUSA sign

(Above) There was an event for fixing motorcycles. Prizes for first, second, and third place were three Harley Davidson motorcycles!

(Below) The convention center is massive! Plenty of vendors and space to set up shop.

large group of people walking around in a convention center

a judge standing beside a table scoring the table settings

(Above) The Restaurant Service competition was down the way from photography. Here, a judge scores table settings.

man standing in a hotel

(Above) The hotel where we're staying is separated from the casino, which had a restaurant we wanted to try.

(Below) I wasn't allowed into the casino (age 21-up  only), so we drove downtown to check out a delicious Kentucky restaurant and had some baby-back ribs.

man seated in a restaurant about to eat

DAY 2 - TUESDAY, June 21

Today was a fairly exciting and stressful day! I woke up at around 11 a.m. eastern time (8 a.m. Pacific) and got ready for the day. I put on my signature SkillsUSA jacket and got my two prints. After that I met up with Mr. Dommer in his room and we took off to the Kentucky Exposition Center (KEC). It was a smooth ride but very disgusting. We drove down River Road, but we called it "Roadkill Road." There was roadkill every 300 feet or so. Squirrels and opossum and a bunch of other small animals. There was a deer crossing sign but no deer in sight today. Anyway, as we arrived to the convention center, we noticed how huge it really is. We made our way through the crowds of other contestants and advisors. Then we got to the meeting place for the photography orientation. Thankfully we came up to a Nikon® representative. She was happy to chat with us about the camera gear out on display. And then Mr. Dommer asked her whether she was a judge for the photography competition and she kindly said no. But then! She reminded us that we needed to bring our prints and resume to the orientation. Mr. Dommer was calm and kept talking to her about the camera gear, I on the other hand panicked! I FORGOT THE RESUME AT THE HOTEL! I quickly told Mr. Dommer that we had to leave for an emergency. He said goodbye to the lady and asked me what was wrong. I proceeded by telling him that the resume was back at the hotel (we weren't able to print the resume on the spot because there were no printers in sight). Mr. Dommer reacted simply by laughing and then started quickly speed-walking to the car. We drove back to the hotel (which is a 35- to 40-minute commute) and got the resume. We had to hurry back (we followed every traffic law going to the hotel and back) to the KEC because my competition starts at 3 and it was 2:10. Thankfully we arrived at the KEC at around 2:47. I quickly ran in and got to my competition. Every contestant was there and I was third to last to arrive (they didn't take off points because it wasn't 3 o'clock yet). After turning in my prints and the resume that we almost forgot to bring (the resume and prints both affect the final score, so it was good that I brought those in) I went to take a seat. The seating was laid out in rows of tables. I had to pick a seat next to someone. Mr. Dommer always tells me to pick the seat next to the, quote-unquote, "hotties" but most of the hotties didn't have seats next to them. So I scanned the area and saw a group of mature, college level dudes, and I sat next to them. We had a great conversation about our gear and they were all from different parts of the U.S. One guy came all the way from Rhode Island! The orientation started and there was some very handy information being presented by the group coordinator. After the orientation was done, Mr. Dommer and I went out to have lunch. We chose a local pizza place. While driving to the pizza place, Mr. Dommer was saying that it was a miracle how we met the lady and she helped us out by mentioning the resume. He specifically said, "Someone is looking out for you." The pizza was a great choice and it was very delicious. We finished off the pizza in an hour and then proceeded to go shopping for supplies we had both forgotten. The locals were very friendly and they were also quite talkative. We walked into Walmart and a few people started talking to us out of the blue. We also went to a K-Mart which was quite depressing. Mr. Dommer said it brought him back to his childhood in the 70s in New York. But it surprised me how friendly everyone was. Later that evening we went to the SkillsUSA opening ceremony. It was great and the venue was gigantic (Freedom Hall). We then left the ceremony after it was done and went to our hotel. Tomorrow is a big day! I've got to get some rest. Hope you're enjoying this blog, tomorrow there will be another one full of exciting stuff. Hopefully you tune in.

(Below) Mike sits among the photography contestants on the floor of the convention center. He's in the red jacket just left of center.

large group of people seated in a convention center

pizza on a pizza pan

(Above) The pizza in Kentucky has ranch sauce and chicken (not road kill). It's pretty good. There wasn't much time to travel far from the convention center for other restaurants.

(Below) Here I am returning to the convention center (Freedom Hall) after lunch.

man in a red suit walking toward the freedom hall convention center

large group of people seated in a convention center with colored spotlights

(Above) The SkillsUSA opening ceremonies were impressive, featuring a number of guest speakers, including Michelle Obama (though only in a video as she's too busy vacationing in federal parks). In the convention center each state sat together and were decorated uniquely. California is middle-left in the photo, with red lights.

DAY 1 - MONDAY, June 20

Louisville Kentucky! Woohoo! I am very excited and anxious as to how the national competition will flow. This morning I woke up at around 3 a.m. thanks to my dad. If he had not woken me up, there wouldn't be a blog today. As I arrived at the airport and said my goodbyes, Mr. Dommer arrived a few minutes later. He has a very great technique on how to keep the airlines from losing your luggage. You just simply buy the most flowery and colorful suitcase out on the market. That way you can easily recognize it during luggage claims. Anyways, we went through security in a matter of just four or five minutes thanks to Mr. Dommers wife, Kumi, who got us business class status since she flies so much for her job. Security was quick, we had a bunch of camera gear in our bags, but thankfully they didn't request to search the bags after X-rays. The flight was the best part of my day (except dinner, which you will find out about soon) because it's been about 10 or 12 years since I've last flown on an airplane. Taking off and feeling the plane battle the harsh winds was amazing to me. Anyways, we landed in Louisville, Kentucky and got our rental car. After that we drove to the hotel. When we finally arrived at the hotel (it's in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, just across the Ohio River) we checked in. After checking in, we got to our rooms and unpacked. I went and relaxed in the hotel's indoor pool, which is massive. Later that night we had a nice dinner, which was provided by SkillsUSA. The pulled pork was exquisite and the ceremony was interesting. Once again, I'd like to thank the people who made this trip possible (Mr. Brian Welborn, Mr. Steve Dommer, Ms. Kumi Kohara, Mrs. Nancy Dexter, Ms. Jackie White, Ms. Keenya Powell, Ms. Beckie Bloemker, Mr. Kirk Davies, and whoever else who helped out.

airport full of people(Above) The security line at the airport was crazy long.

(Below) Lucky for us, we had Business Select privileges thanks to Mr. Dommer's wife, who travels on Southwest a lot for her job.

man giving thumbs up at an airport
(Below) Here I negotiate with a TSA agent about X-Ray-ing his SkillsUSA jacket. They weren't concerned with a bag full of camera equipment.

man handing a jacket to a TSA agent at the airport

man sitting on an airplane

(Above) My favorite parts of flying were the takeoffs and landings. 

large group of people eating dinner in a hotel

(Above) The contestants and advisors from California are staying in a huge casino hotel across the Ohio River in Indiana. An awesome dinner was served Monday night: Pulled pork, chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, mac-n-cheese, rolls, and fudge brownies for dessert.