Academic Decathlon students prepare for state

Priyanka Hardikar, Staff Writer

The three words “academic decathlon teams” can be misleading. While A team member senior Stephen Xi said he figured it was a nerd club, perfect for someone like him, B team member senior Rachel Goldman admitted that the expectation of completing stacks of tests and memorizing over 1,500 pages of information was terrifying.

“I’m really glad that I didn’t act on that first impulse to run away,” Goldman said. “It can still be really stressful and sometimes when I’m in the middle of a test, I feel like I don’t know anything. But I love the people – we’re like a dysfunctional family. We make terrible jokes, laugh at each other, and I always look forward to the class.”

Last year, coaches Tim Murray and Marco Ramirez evaluated possible senior candidates for this year’s Academic Decathlon team based on grade point average, PSAT scores, work ethic, teacher recommendations and a drive for learning. This was the first year that two juniors were invited to join. The entire team was then divided into three subgroups – the A, B and C teams – based on grade point average.

The students compete in state competitions by taking 30-minute tests on seven subjects: literature, art, music, math, science, social science, economics and three subjective categories which include an interview, essay and speech. The coaches help prepare the students by telling them what to expect on competition day and how to fulfill those expectations. They also get specialists in the different subjects to come and work with the students.

Goldman faced conflict between Academic Decathlon and orchestra, when both required her attention Thursday afternoons. She ended up running across campus to switch between the two. Although she considered giving up orchestra, she never considered quitting the Academic Decathlon team.

“Once I made the team, I was in it for good. I didn’t want to put my coaches through the stress of finding a new B member, and I also started to like it as the team became a team,” Goldman said. “I wouldn’t leave my friends.”

According to Murray, the most intimidating event of the competition is the Super Quiz relay which, to Ramirez, feels like a huge game show. One student from each competing team answers six questions under time pressure in front of a live audience. Every year they are given a topic of focus, with this year’s being Russia.

“It’s the only topic where I get to see how the kids are doing. Some kids rise above the pressure valiantly and some kids don’t,” Murray said. “I’m often surprised because sometimes the kids I’m not expecting to do the absolute best have, while the kids who I have high expectations for haven’t come through. It’s interesting to see the team’s dynamics and how they work under that kind of pressure.”

Along with test-taking skills, the students are evaluated on their ability to deliver a speech. They are supposed to develop a persuasive speech from any topic they choose and deliver it in three and a half to four minutes. Goldman took speech in ninth grade, expecting it to help reduce her stage fright. However, her lack of familiarity in the class and her teacher’s lack of assistance did the opposite.

“When I realized that I would have to deliver not one speech, but two of them, I was rethinking my decision of joining the team, like ‘Maybe this was wrong; can I just take the tests and go home?’” Goldman said. “But the day of the competition, the coaches pulled us out individually and had us give our speeches for last-minute changes. I gave mine with one memory stumble and a lot of awkward hand movements. You could tell I was just reciting it. Outside the room with the judges, I was freaking out. But I went in and started my speech – I was totally calm and it was the best I’d ever done.”

The team made fourth at the regional competition at Adamson High School in Dallas. Senior Michael Hawkes, an A team member, credits their success on the team’s wide-ranging strengths and preexisting knowledge. Hawkes said the students teach each other their subjects of expertise, and learn more in the process.

Hawkes and Xi earned perfect scores on their speeches. During every practice speech, Hawkes added or omitted something and feared that he would forget all of the changes he had made on competition day. He said what really pushed him to succeed were Murray’s words of wisdom; Murray reminded him that reciting a speech was like acting and the object was to create a convincing performance for the audience.

“When I was sitting outside the competition room, next to go, some girl walked by and said ‘Don’t look so nervous, it’s not that bad’ and I walked in, gave my speech,” Hawkes said. “It went from being this page and a half-piece of paper that I had crammed in 45 minutes to something I was really proud of it.”

Although the students are nervous for their upcoming state competition on Feb. 20, the coaches said the team’s taste of the level of competition at the regional event has boosted their preparation work for State, especially after competition with Rockwall, their strongest competitor. Goldman said this year’s team is striving to live up to earlier team legacies. The earlier teams have gotten State every year for the past six years, and Goldman said thinking about this goal gives her the necessary push to overcome anything.

“It is amazing to watch them teach each other and bring each other along. I have always enjoyed seeing kids progress between their junior and senior years. As I teach mostly juniors in pre-AP physics, I have seniors on the team now who were in my classes last year,” Ramirez said. “I really enjoy watching how much they have grown and seeing what they are capable of when they really put their minds to it. Academic Decathlon really forces kids out of their comfort zones and builds them into well-rounded students.”

Xi said he sees the state competition and academic decathlon as one of his last accomplishments in high school, one that will always stay with him.

“It’s the collection of people, who really love to learn and be a part of this that makes the product in the end so special,” Xi said. “Normally, my greatest fear is letting down myself, but in this case because others are affected; my fear is letting down my team. I know I need to pull my own weight, for the sake of making this a great experience for everyone.”