De­cathlon team is think­ing big

Granada Hills stu­dents set their sights on this week’s na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Teresa Watan­abe

It’s the best thing ever for Fer­nando Sanchez and Jorge Zepeda, two cousins who at­tend Granada Hills Char­ter High School. Bet­ter than goat meat tacos. Bet­ter than movies with friends. Bet­ter even, they say, than “League of Leg­ends” — the uber-popular on­line video game that they once ob­ses­sively played for hours a day.

The boys have a new pas­sion. It’s the Aca­demic De­cathlon, and they can’t stop talk­ing about the joys of deep dives into quan­tum me­chan­ics, ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, nu­clear physics and elec­tro­chem­istry.

“This is way more pro­duc­tive and it’s re­ally fun,” Fer­nando said about the de­cathlon, the 10-event scholas­tic com­pe­ti­tion that tests stu­dents in math, science, so­cial science, eco­nomics, mu­sic, art and lit­er­a­ture, along with re­quir­ing a speech, es­say and in­ter­view.

Fer­nando and Jorge, both chil­dren of im­mi­grants, are mem­bers of one of the na­tion’s most suc­cess­ful de­cathlon teams. In the last five years, Granada Hills stu­dents have won 11 out of a pos­si­ble 14 city, state and na-

tional ti­tles — hav­ing been edged out only last year by archri­val El Camino Real Char­ter in Wood­land Hills.

Af­ter re­claim­ing the state and Los An­ge­les Uni­fied city ti­tles ear­lier this year, the Granada Hills team is aim­ing to win an­other na­tional cham­pi­onship in the three­day com­pe­ti­tion that be­gan Thurs­day in Gar­den Grove. This year’s theme is al­ter­na­tive en­ergy.

“We’ve done so well that to lose in the na­tion­als would be dev­as­tat­ing,” Fer­nando said.

The two cousins, like the other nine team mem­bers, say that the Aca­demic De­cathlon isn’t just about win­ning, but the long jour­ney of build­ing team bonds as they ac­quire knowl­edge, self-con­fi­dence and study skills. The event re­quires that teams in­clude A, B and C stu­dents, which mem­bers say cul­ti­vates col­lab­o­ra­tion and team­work as they help one an­other suc­ceed.

On cam­pus, as they pre­pared for na­tion­als this week, the stu­dents sat in a cir­cle with a lan­guage and lit­er­acy prac­tice test and col­lec­tively puz­zled over whether a pas­sage was or­ga­nized spa­tially, chrono­log­i­cally or through other de­vices. The stu­dents took turns an­swer­ing and ask­ing ques­tions — what’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween di­alect and col­lo­quial? Can char­ac­ter­i­za­tion re­fer to places or just peo­ple?

The stu­dents are sup­port­ive but driven. When one asked why a par­tic­u­lar an­swer was cor­rect, an­other gen­tly chided her. “We just went over that. Where have you been, friend?”

Fer­nando pushes his younger cousin Jorge in more di­rect ways. When he sees Jorge zon­ing out over his read­ings, he gives him a wake-up kick. When his cousin com­plains of fa­tigue, Fer­nando tells him: “You’re not al­lowed to be tired, let’s keep go­ing.”

The team mem­bers, who are win­nowed from a group of about 50 who try out over the sum­mer, spend more than 30 hours a week study­ing. Most forgo school dances, sports, stu­dent gov­ern­ment and other cam­pus ac­tiv­i­ties in their all-con­sum­ing fer­vor to mas­ter the ma­te­rial. They sac­ri­fice time with fam­ily and friends. As the pace in­ten­si­fies with the city com­pe­ti­tion in Fe­bru­ary, they delete Instagram from their phones and block their own ac­cess to Face­book. Is it worth it? “Of course,” said Irene Lee, a se­nior who tied the L.A. Uni­fied de­cathlon in­di­vid­ual record in Fe­bru­ary with a score of 9,461.4 of a pos­si­ble 10,000 points. “Watch­ing my­self sep­a­rated from the se­nior class was hard, but it makes you re­al­ize how mean­ing­ful work­ing hard is.”

Jorge, a ju­nior, said he joined the de­cathlon to im­prove his work ethic and study skills — and he has. As a sopho­more, he got a cou­ple of Ds but this year his grades have soared to As and Bs.

“I saw it as a way to not spend my time un­wisely,” he said. “It’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence if you want to get on the right track.”

Natalie Gon­za­lez, a se­nior, wanted to break out of her shell. She’s still on the shy side, she said, but has im­proved her public speak­ing so much that she earned a per­fect 1,000 points in a com­pe­ti­tion this year for her speech on “potable poop” — tech­nol­ogy to trans­form hu­man waste to wa­ter.

Fer­nando, a se­nior, never had a prob­lem with grades. The son of im­mi­grants from Mex­ico and In­done­sia, he’s a self-de­scribed math nerd who is headed to MIT.

Fer­nando said the de­cathlon ex­pe­ri­ence has prompted him to spend his time far more pro­duc­tively. He used to play “League of Leg­ends” as many as 12 hours a day and was so ob­sessed that he even at­tended a live com­pe­ti­tion at Sta­ples Cen­ter to watch the world’s best play­ers battle it out. He spends that time now on such en­deav­ors as mem­o­riz­ing all 67 pages of dense text from the de­cathlon’s study guide: “An In­tro­duc­tion to En­ergy Con­ver­sion.”

“Play­ing ‘League’ is the great­est re­gret of my life.… I’m so glad I quit,” he said.

Mathew Arnold, Granada Hills de­cathlon coach for the past six years, said one key to build­ing the pow­er­house pro­gram is know­ing what kind of stu­dents best suc­ceed. Open­ness to change, risk-tak­ing and team-build­ing are as im­por­tant as grades and test scores, he said. Arnold said he’s also learned how to pace the stu­dents so they don’t burn out too soon and he strives to cre­ate a sense of fam­ily and fun among them.

He has suc­ceeded, judg­ing from stu­dent re­views.

“The coaches don’t just give you the ma­te­rial but teach us how to be bet­ter team­mates for each other,” Fer­nando said. “They get us re­ally close and tell us the mind­set we need — that it’s all for each other.”

The team mem­bers are: Peter Cho, Irene Lee, Fer­nando Sanchez, Natalie Gon­za­lez, Je­nean Doc­ter, Jorge Zepeda, Tan­thai Pongstien and Jas­min Kim and al­ter­nates Ji­hee Han, Josh Lin and Aisha Mah­mud.

‘I saw it as a way to not spend my time un­wisely. It’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence if you want to get on the right track.’ — Jorge Zepeda, Aca­demic De­cathlon team mem­ber

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

FER­NANDO SANCHEZ, right, 18, with Tan­thai Pongstien, 17, says, “We’ve done so well that to lose in the na­tion­als would be dev­as­tat­ing.”

Pho­to­graphs by Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

JAS­MIN KIM, 17, packs books Tues­day as the team was pre­par­ing to leave for the com­pe­ti­tion. This year’s theme is al­ter­na­tive en­ergy.

PETER CHO, 17, left, and Ji­hee Han, 16, study math prob­lems. Team mem­bers are win­nowed from a group of about 50 and study more than 30 hours a week.

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