YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Pressure Rises for Academic Decathletes


LOS ANGELES — Students from Moorpark and Simi High schools tapped their feet, bit their fingernails and furrowed their brows Friday morning as they waited to begin the first round of testing in the 21st annual California Academic Decathlon.

Both teams are vying for the title of state champion and for the chance to compete in the national finals in San Antonio next month. More than 400 students from 50 California high schools converged at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott for the two-day battle of the brains.

The competition is fierce. Moorpark High School holds the 1999 national title.

But Simi Valley High School won the Ventura County contest this year and is ranked No. 1 in the nation, based on scores from countywide competitions. And El Camino Real High School, which won the national finals in 1998, is not far behind the two Ventura County teams.

Early Friday morning, Simi Valley junior Kevin White said he felt nervous, excited and "slightly ill."

"There's been a lot of pressure because there is so much competition," Kevin, 17, said. "It's going to be close no matter how it turns out."

After the first round, students flooded out of the testing area to eat a snack, breathe a quick sigh of relief and cram for the next session of exams. They stretched their hands, hugged their good luck stuffed animals and debriefed their anxious coaches:

"I thought my essay could have been better." "That wasn't too bad." "Man, that was hard." "Do I have to go back in there?"

Moorpark co-coach Michelle Bergman reminded her students to keep calm--and focused. "Don't let things freak you out," she said. "Just go on to the next test and don't dwell on anything."

Both Ventura County teams donned personalized shirts, and Moorpark's decathletes wore parsley, or "brain food," as boutonnieres.

On Friday, students wrote essays and took tests in social science, science, math, music, literature, economics and art. The contest continues this morning, when team members give interviews and speeches at Westchester High School.

This afternoon, the teams will travel to Loyola Marymount University, where they will answer multiple-choice questions in the most popular event, the Super Quiz. This year's theme is "The Sustainable Earth."

Since they started preparing for the decathlon last summer, students have taken hundreds of practice tests, rehearsed their speeches dozens of times and spent countless hours listening to jazz and analyzing paintings. They have sacrificed extracurricular activities, quit after-school jobs and put schoolwork aside.

The Moorpark and Simi teams came down to Los Angeles on Tuesday for uninterrupted study time. Students said they only took breaks to eat and sleep.

"We've been working so hard to reach this goal and now we're finally here," said Moorpark's David Pomerantz. "It's kind of a relief. But at the same time, I'm wondering if we did enough."

Judy Combs, executive director of California's contest, said the decathlon gets more competitive and gains more prestige every year. She said university admissions officers are taking a closer look at students who have the decathlon on their transcripts.

This year's Ventura County decathletes have applied to universities such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley and UCLA.

"I admire the students greatly," Combs said. "They deserve all the accolades and admiration we can bestow upon them. It's an arduous program."

California's winner will be announced at an awards ceremony Sunday morning at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott.

Los Angeles Times Articles