Daniel Berdichevsky hands out alpaca finger puppets to teams at the 2012… (Los Angeles Times )
ALBUQUERQUE — As he strode into the hotel ballroom, scores of high school students swarmed the man they know as DemiDec Dan, a legend in the world of Academic Decathlon.
The students, competing for the national decathlon title, clamored for the chance to shake his hand. They posed for pictures with him. They reached out for one of the colorful wool finger puppets he has turned into the unofficial mascot of the academic competition.
"I'm meeting DemiDec Dan!" one boy exclaimed.
"Look at your adoring fans!" said another.
Daniel Berdichevsky is an Academic Decathlon star. He once set a record for the highest individual score in the grueling, 10-subject competition. But that wasn't all that set him apart from the crowd of teenage admirers.
Berdichevsky is 35. He achieved his record in 1993, before many of the students in the ballroom that day were born.
Since then, he has parlayed his love for the event and nostalgia for his glory days into a livelihood.
He started a test preparation company, DemiDec, while still a student at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and has since launched an international variation of the decathlon called the World Scholar's Cup.
He travels so much — racking up 350,000 frequent flier miles a year by his count — that he gave up his apartment and crashes in his old bedroom at his parents' home in the San Fernando Valley.
Wherever he goes, students greet him like a rock star. They know about his high score and have used his phone-book-size study guides.
In February, students waiting to compete in a decathlon event at Roybal Learning Center in Echo Park dropped their DemiDec guides and ran to him. Some bowed.
Weeks later in the United Arab Emirates, a 14-year-old girl handed Berdichevsky a handwritten biography, bound in yarn, so detailed that it touched on his student days at Stanford University and included a childhood photo of him with an alpaca.
"I think I am a professional decathlete," he said. "I wouldn't have imagined it, but I'm glad it has turned out this way."
Years ago, friends and mentors foresaw a different future for Berdichevsky.
"I would have loved if Daniel had been a doctor or a lawyer," said Arthur Berchin, the longtime decathlon coach at Taft High. "He would have been successful in any of the professions."
He chose decathlon.
"The high school cheerleader gets to go to college and do a little cheer, and she's done," said Jennifer Berdichevsky, his sister. Decathlon "has become his life. It's a way of living that every day of his life, and he didn't have to let go."
To understand the cult-figure status of Daniel Berdichevsky, you have to know a little about decathlon.
It isn't the kind of extracurricular activity in which students can get by with the occasional after-school meeting; it's a lifestyle.
Students give up weekends, holidays, even chunks of summer vacation to pore over thick study guides in pursuit of success. At the most competitive schools, a new season of decathlon begins a few weeks after the previous one ended.
The two-day trial of intellectual acuity and stamina begins with written tests in such subjects as math and science, literature and music. The teams give speeches and are interviewed by judges. The competition concludes with its only public event: a high-stress, multiple-choice history test.
The decathlon looks good on a college application, but students who participate say that's not the reason they do it. There are other, less stressful ways to beef up a resume.
In mastering a broad area of knowledge, bright students often face their first true intellectual challenge.
Even now, Berdichevsky lights up when he talks about his decathlon days at Taft. There was the time his teammates attracted the attention of a police officer wanting to know what they were doing at school at 3 a.m. (Studying, of course.)
They made copies of the school's master keys so they could wander freely after hours, and cleaned an old toilet they found and put it in their coach's classroom. (It was for a teammate whose favorite study spot was a faculty restroom.)
Team members spent almost all their time together. "It was a family away from family," Berchin said.
A number of former decathlon competitors have gone on to become team coaches, and some of them analyze teams and handicap competitions on a DemiDec message board.
"You know how some people follow everything that has to do with football?" said Robb Dooling, 21, a former competitor from Omaha who is now studying computer science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "That's me with decathlon. It's an obsession."
Berdichevsky's decathlon destiny traces to a May 2, 1989, newspaper headline: "Taft High Team Wins U.S. Title in Academic Decathlon Competition."
His parents read about the school's decathlon success in the Los Angeles Times when they were choosing between two houses, one of which was near Taft. That decided it.