On a recent Thursday afternoon the academic decathlon team at Granada Hills Charter High School was taking it easy. Since the team is just coming off the district level of the 10-round battle of the brains, they practiced after school only until around 4:30, instead of wrapping up at the usual 8 p.m.
Without yet knowing the results of the L.A. Unified competition the weekend prior, their eyes were on the next round, the state competition. On this particular day, they brushed up on essay-writing skills and practicing typing answers, rather than writing by hand.
Coach Mathew Arnold read prompts and gave students 10 minutes to write.
"What is Hindu nationalism and how has it affected Indian politics?" Arnold presented to the students.
The next day, they found out that they won the district competition and would be one of about a dozen teams to move to the state competition in March. From there, only one team moves forward to represent California in the national championship in May.
Granada Hills is the reigning national champion and the team has won nationals four times in the past five years. California is a powerhouse in the competition. Schools in the state have won the national championship 65 percent of the time since it started in 1982. In recent years, Southern California schools have been the ones to watch.
THE SUPER QUIZ
Those stakes were on display when Granada Hills was the only team to get a perfect score in the competition's "Super Quiz" round.
At the district level there are two rounds: One weekend, students spend hours on the speech, interview and essay categories.
The next weekend is the Super Quiz -- a rapid fire round with the feel of a sporting event. Hundreds of fans packed into the stands cheering on the more than 50 schools competing. Many teams are decked out in matching T-shirts that say things like, "NERD HERD" and "NERD SQUAD"
Each team has three students, sitting on folding chairs with pencils and scantrons in hand.
The host throws out questions on anything from the makeup of boreal pine nuts forests to instrumentation in Indian music. The teams have ten seconds to bubble in their answers. Each team throws up a sign (3, 2 or 1) to indicate how well they performed and the fans whoop and cheer in support.
Nine students are on each team and they compete in three-person divisions based on their GPA. All nine members of the Granada Hills team got every answer right.
"It’s a lot of pressure to keep up that legacy," said junior Melissa Santos, who is a new member of the team.
"We haven’t won anything yet," added Mayeena Ulkarim, another new student. "It was the people before us."
Jorge Zepeda is one of the veteran team members. He competed in the national competition last year. He says success at the district level is a baby step for an elite team.
"Our real goal is to win state because whoever wins states get to go to nationals," said Zepeda. "So we’re just going to be preparing, trying our hardest to make sure that we’re ready for state cuz we’re basically gonna be facing the same people."
PRACTICE: SIX DAYS A WEEK
To make it to nationals repeatedly and win, Granada Hills puts in a ton of work.
"We’re often here until 8, Monday through Saturday," said coach Arnold. "Not year round but from winter break on."
The team practices over breaks and on holidays like Presidents Day. And they have a class period dedicated to decathlon math.
Each student has to be expert in each subject: Art, math, science, economics, literature, social science, music, art interview, speech and essay.
On top of all this work for the team, these students are high schoolers, with other scholastic obligations. For senior Baani Dhanoa, the rigorous schedule has taught her to be more efficient than she was before she joined the team.
"[Before] I would, like, watch TV or listen to music or I wouldn’t be productive while I was doing it," Dhanoa said. "Now that you have that limited time, you realize you can get it all done, but you have to be productive."
These students say that decathlon is pretty much the center of their social lives as well. Just like on a sports team, coach Arnold says, personalities matter.
"They have to accept each other as teammates and work on that part of it just as much as much as learning what the curriculum is for this year," he said.
Ahmad Chaudhry is an alternate on the team, but he still commits the same amount of time. For him, all this practicing is the point
"Decathlon isn’t about the actual competition itself but more about the process how we get there and really work hard to do the best we can," he said. "It’s really more of a journey than just one specific day."