Performing well at this decathlon is the smart thing to do


A triumphal march blared and the crowd roared Saturday afternoon as hundreds of competitors filed into the massive gymnasium at the Roybal Learning Center.

The high school students were pumped — some teams danced a little to get warmed up, and at least one team had their school mascot there to root them on — and they were prepared, having spent months training for this moment.

Some of the students carried themselves with the intensity of gladiators stepping into the ring. The challenge before them was a purely intellectual one, but it was still daunting: The last leg of Los Angeles Unified’s regional Academic Decathlon was about to begin.


They’d taken tests on mathematics, music, arts and science. They’d been interviewed by judges and had to give a speech. And now it was time for the Super Quiz, a high-pressure, multiple-choice relay that is the 10-subject competition’s only public event. (This year’s theme: Russia.)

The students — from 58 high schools in the district — faced questions about Peter the Great’s influence on art and architecture, the significance of Sputnik and the hurdles Russia faced after the fall of communism. And they had to answer them as family and friends — and their rivals — looked on.

Marshall and Granada Hills Charter high schools, typical powerhouses, were the top performers in the Super Quiz, according to a preliminary tally. The final results for the entire competition will be announced Friday.

“It’s daunting,” said Evae Silva, an English teacher who coaches Verdugo Hills’ decathlon team, “the amount of material they cover and the hours they put in. You have to expect a lot of out of them.”

Silva, who previously coached athletics, said putting together a decathlon team — which consists of nine students, with a mix of A, B and C grade-point averages — isn’t all that different from recruiting for track and field. Talent and intelligence matter, but what matters more? “Commitment, enthusiasm and the willingness to put in the work,” he said.

When he coached cross country and track and field, he said, “I had to coach them to be faster than I am. Now I have to teach them to be smarter than I am. I have to prepare them to perform.”

Decathletes are a special breed of high schooler. Not all students want to hand over their free time, especially the seniors, to study things for which they won’t get a grade.

Dylan Bladen, a senior at Los Angeles High School, said that when his coach first tried to recruit him, he gave him a few pages of study material for the art portion of the competition. Bladen balked. “Oh, no! I’m not doing this,” he recalled thinking.

Months later, it’s a different story. “I was complaining about three pages,” Bladen said. But the workload had probably gotten up to “thousands of pages and probably thousands of hours too!”

They say they do it because they thrive on having to confront something more difficult than the rest of their schoolwork. “Normal school is mundane and annoying to me, and this provided a challenge,” said Maxwell Lederer, 17, a senior at Venice High School. A Soviet flag, with the hammer and sickle, was draped over his shoulders.

Camaraderie is forged among teammates as the season progresses. They have their inside jokes and pick on one another like siblings. But they depend on one another too, especially for motivation. “At one point, I was doing it more for them,” Bladen said, pointing to his team.

For some schools, their preparation consisted of hours of late nights after school and weekend practices. It’s exhausting, said Oriel Gomez, a South East High School senior. But it pays off come competition time, facing test after test.

“You realize you have the answer,” he said, “and you have no doubt about it.”