First-timers find this decathlon is a long, hard run

Times staff writer

Silence settled over the high school classroom. The students stared at one another, the same question stamped on their baffled faces: What the heck is jinwen?

On this recent Wednesday afternoon, the nine classmates had mostly breezed through the multiple-choice questions. Until jinwen.

"This is just a guess," said Carlos Ochoa, 18, the first to pipe up, "but is it D?"

The teacher shook her head.

"B?" another student ventured. Another head shake.

The answer? "A," Jeri Jones, the teacher, read from a score sheet. "Jinwen is a script used to inscribe ancient Chinese bronzes."

"Man," muttered David Taliaferro, 17, as he slumped in his chair, "that one was hard."

"Hard" might be an understatement for these students, who comprise Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School's first team in the Academic Decathlon, a grueling competition that tests students' knowledge and mettle. They are expected to master subjects such as climatology and, this year, Chinese vocabulary, to compete in a district that has among the toughest fields of contenders in California, possibly the country.

This afternoon at UCLA, 62 teams from the Los Angeles Unified School District will face off in the Super Quiz, the climax of the decathlon that determines which teams will proceed to the state championship competition in March.

Taft High School, winner of last year's national title, will be there. So will a fellow Woodlands Hills school, El Camino Real High, which won back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005.

And so will Maywood Academy High School and Orthopaedic Magnet, new campuses sponsoring teams that are -- by their own admission -- the underdogs, the proverbial Davids in a field full of textbooktoting Goliaths.

"Sure, it would be great to win the whole thing," said David of Orthopaedic Magnet, just south of downtown, after the drill session that included the bout with jinwen. "But realistically, in the back of our minds, we just don't want to come in last place."

Much like expansion NFL franchises in their first year, newcomers to the Academic Decathlon face an uphill battle against powerhouse teams stocked with veterans of past championship runs and coaches who have honed their strategies down to the most minute details, such as how many pages their students should study per day.

The talent and experience aren't confined to one or two teams in the district either. Last year in the state Academic Decathlon, L.A. Unified schools placed first, second and fifth through 11th.

That depth can be hard for first-year teams to appreciate, said Cliff Ker, the district's Academic Decathlon coordinator.

"It doesn't really sink in until you've worked really hard with your kids all year and someone still scores 10,000 points more than you do," he said.

A team's first year can be made especially rough when administrators and teachers can't attract enough interest. Teams must have at least six members to compete, and coaches who see minimum turnout will sometimes go to considerable lengths to hold on to wary students.

When South East High School opened its doors just south of downtown last year, Assistant Principal Julia Chung didn't want to intimidate her seven potential decathlon participants any more than she had to. So she neglected to mention that the Super Quiz is televised -- until a couple hours before the competition began.

Her students were surprised, but they took it in stride. Chung admits that the team finished the decathlon "toward the bottom," but it wasn't last. This year, it has a new goal: most improved.

"Your first year you're not going to do well," Chung said. "That's a given. So what you can look forward to is the next year."

That's an axiom that Lopa Mukherji, the coach at newcomer Maywood Academy, appreciates. Her team has six students, and all of them have struggled with the complex subjects the decathlon demands, especially climatology.

But Mukherji is looking forward. She has already lined up other teachers to help her coach next year's team. She is planning to attend district workshops on the decathlon. And, most important, she hopes to have a foundation of decathlon veterans from her current team.

"All six of them want to come back next year," Mukherji said, "so that tells me something."

Freshman and senior coaches agree that the hardest aspect of the competition for rookie teams to grasp is the time commitment. Veteran teams that compete at the highest echelons will start studying over the summer, sometimes right on the heels of the previous year's competition season.

They will study before school, after school and all night after dinner, said North Hollywood High School coach Jim Hatem, who's led decathlon teams for 18 years. Coaches will toil just as hard to keep the teams on pace and make sure they don't "peak" too early.

"It takes all your time, plus some," said Hatem, whose resume includes coaching a Los Angeles High School team that won the Super Quiz 10 years in a row.

"There's no eating, there's no sleeping. This is your whole life," he said.

The Orthopaedic Magnet team might not be at the level of the veterans -- yet. But a recent afternoon found members working hard to close the gap. The students, some with Monster Energy drinks perched on their desks, diligently plowed through mind-boggling questions on topics as wide-ranging as livestock in Mongolia, glacial ice cores and the hantavirus.

The subject matter was enough to intimidate Jones, their coach. "Guys," she said after reading through one tongue-tripping, brain-twisting question, "I'm so glad I'm not doing this. Good for you."

For both Jones and her students, "it's a learning curve," she said.

"But," she added, "I think it'll be easier for me next year. And hopefully better for them."


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