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A Postcard From Alaska

A Reporter's Notes From the Academic Decathlon Finals


ANCHORAGE — A postcard of scenes from the thawing northern territory, as nearly 500 high school students, including nine seniors from El Camino Real in Woodland Hills, competed on the second of the U.S. Academic Decathlon's three days:

Class System

Each decathlon team must be stocked with an even mix of A, B and C students, and it's not hard to spot the ones who earn Cs. In the slackers' section of the testing room--at the back, naturally--you'll find more spiky hair, funky shoes and more black outfits than at the front, where the most studious are seated. And between tests, there's more slouching and chitchat among the so-called Varsity division.

"We have personalities," El Camino Varsity student Elan Bar explained. "All your [A students] are 4.0 nerds. We're the ones who have fun."

That's too much fun for El Camino coach Melinda Owen's liking. The Varsity students from Colorado are staying above her room at the Anchorage Hilton, and they brought their stereo.

Battle of the Sexes

Jake Johnson, the strapping 17-year-old center for the Van Buren, Ark., football team found himself shopping for body lotion and pantyhose with the eight Southern belles on his team. How else can the squad's one lonely fella pass his time? "You have to kind of explore your feminine side," said Jake, who does not have to share his hotel room.

As in Alaska, the men in the Academic Decathlon outnumber the women, so Van Buren High School's gender ratio is unusual. El Camino has just two ladies on its team of testosterone.

Media Monitor

Drafted Friday as a proctor for the music exam, this correspondent paced all 45 rows of test-takers with a keen eye (and ear) for cheaters. None was found, but he handed out many a facial tissue to sniffling students. It seems the cold here in Anchorage has gotten to a few decathletes, although outside the William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center (named for Alaska's first governor), townsfolk are walking around in T-shirts.

El Camino came out of Friday's tests with mixed expressions. The biology test was a bear, they said, and music and art didn't seem much better. Economics, a strong subject for the Conquistadores, went well, they reported.

The team also felt good about Thursday's tests, interviews and speeches. None of them were selected for Friday night's "speech showcase," however, neither were any Texans. (News that the only two states to have ever won the national title would not be presenting at the recital was considered shocking and caused much discussion among decathletes.)

End of an era

This 19th national decathlon brings the retirements of three major figures in its history. Judy Combs, who for 12 years has run California's competition among 600 schools, is turning over her office to a yet-unnamed trio. Between raising more than $200,000 a year to run the state program and producing the contests themselves, it's a job for three people, she said. Combs became California's executive director in 1989, after the San Fernando Valley's Taft High School in Woodland Hills won the national trophy.

The women who have coached Texas' Taylor High to two national titles in 15 years are also graduating. "We're tired," biology teacher Cynthia Swetnam said. "It's exhausting." So is there pressure on Taylor's nine to win one last title for their Gippers? "We told them [we were retiring] early on . . . because we didn't want that to be a factor in their performance at any level," said Susan Shellum, who teaches English at Katy High School, outside Houston.

North to the Future

Why do we find ourselves in Alaska, at least one time zone and 1,000 miles away from just about every competing school? Turns out, the privilege of hosting one of the nation's most prestigious academic competitions is handed out like the Olympics. "Alaska wanted people to see Anchorage and so they presented a proposal," said Combs. Phoenix will host next year.

And just in case the decathletes take a shine to Alaska while they're here, two of the state's universities have set up tables to recruit. Alaska Pacific University promises to help pay out-of-state students' air fare to the Anchorage campus and give them free coffee at the school's cafe, Summa Cum Latte. Looking over the stats for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, one decathlete scoffed: "The average SAT is 1062." Presumably, her scores are closer to the college entrance exam's top score of 1600.

Words From the Wise

"It's like professionals versus amateurs."

--Susan Bureau, coach of the New Hampshire team, on the difference between the powerhouses from California and Texas and squads like hers, from small states.

Watch and Learn

No, ESPN will not be covering today's Super Quiz or tonight's awards banquet. But decathlon organizers promise the competition's only public event and the trophy hand-out will be live online. Tune in through the Alaska Academic Decathlon's Web site: http:// from 10:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m. PDT for the Super Quiz and 7:30-10 p.m. for the awards.

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