ALBUQUERQUE — In the nine months since the Granada Hills Charter High School Academic Decathlon team began studying for the competition, it's racked up an impressive list of accolades.
The group took home victories locally, beating out all other teams in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and statewide, besting teams from across California.
On Saturday, for the second year in a row, Granada Hills clinched the national title, outperforming 32 other teams. And this year — with a score of 54,081 points — the students claimed the highest score ever at the national competition.
The team's top scorer, Sean Wejebe, crossed the award ceremony stage so many times, it became a running joke with the master of ceremonies, a local broadcaster. ("From Granada Hills Charter High School in California — I'll just let everyone guess: Sean Wejebe!")
Teams and coaches from other states viewed the Granada Hills students with awe, clearly impressed at their prowess.
"This was our end goal, and we did it," said Julia Wall, a senior on the team. Now, they have the "reward for all of our work over the past nine months."
Yet it was clear that there were other victories. Those are not as tangible as the clanking medals around the students' necks and the heavy glass trophy. But they are perhaps even more important: team bonding. Confidence. Endurance. Social skills.
"The nature of the program turns you into a good student, someone who can set goals and accomplish them," said Julia, a C-level, or "varsity," student — who admits she previously wasn't the most studious.
Her parents, who were in Albuquerque for the two-day competition, marvel at her transformation. Her mother said she struggled after changing high schools after 10th grade. She was shy. She had a "competitive spirit," her father said, but she lacked an outlet.
"I'm glad to see her come into her own," said Dan Wall.
Julia and Jimmy Wu both aimed to be the first varsity students to break the 9,000-point barrier in the competition — considered to be quite a feat in an event with 10,000 possible points.
Jimmy pulled it off, scoring 9,182 points. He was stunned. "I didn't think I broke 9,000," he said soon after hearing the news.
"I've always been an underachiever, a C student," he said. "I joined Academic Decathlon to change that."
Their win was the product of an intense process: marathon study sessions, lost weekends and breaks, a constant effort to push themselves further and further. Surviving that — and being successful — has left them with an uncommon bond.
"They were strangers when we started," said senior Lev Tauz. "I didn't know any of them. I didn't grow comfortable with just the [test] subjects, but with the people."
They saw each other more often than they saw their families, and they learned to encourage and rely on each other.
Spencer Wolf, one of the coaches, described his philosophy: "Put them in control, and see what they can do."
"People can do impressive things if they have focus," he said. "So it's about raising the bar."
The team of nine includes Hamidah Mahmud, Christian Koguchi, Priscilla Liu, Kimberly Ly and Stella Lee, in addition to Sean, Julia, Jimmy and Lev. Besides Wolf, the coaches are Matt Arnold and Nick Weber.
Kimberly, who spoke at a small gathering for the winning teams, said she finally found a place where she could be herself. "I was trying to fit in with everyone else," she said. "I was trying to be cool." But she found a group who accepts her for who she is. ("I'm weird," she said.)
Kimberly and Hamidah, both juniors, could have another year to compete, but for everyone else, the decathlon is over. They will return to school with Advanced Placement exams looming and an upcoming prom, but they'll have a gaping hole in their schedule.
"Oh, I'll get to go home when it's still light outside," Julia said.
Saturday's victory could also help win support for the decathlon in L.A.; the Los Angeles Unified School District has threatened to pull funding for the program to help deal with a budget shortfall. (Charter schools like Granada Hills are publicly financed, though they are independently run and have more control over such programs than traditional campuses.)
The district, the nation's second-largest, has been a decathlon powerhouse, winning 13 national titles.
Wolf said the coaches will have to regroup and figure out what their goals for next year could be. They've won nationals, they've broken the record for the highest-scoring team. What could they hope to accomplish next?