When most people hear about a decathlon they think of the track and field event, athletes at the top of their game clearing hurdles and racing to a finish line in the summer heat.
Fewer are familiar with the academic event where teams of students study a topic for months, sometimes a full year, then compete in a series of tests, interviews and speeches.
For nine students at Star Lane Center, training for the decathlon has been the focus of their lives for months. And their work paid off. Each student on the team placed in the top 15 in at least one of the competition subgroups at the U.S. Academic Decathlon, held April 28 and 30 in Alaska. The team won the rookie of the year award in Division III — the subdivision for smaller cities.
“Considering it was the first time going, we did really well,” said senior Francesca Allen, 17.
Decathlons are a solitary competition, said London Hultman, a quiet eleventh-grader. The team studies together, but for the most part, they each compete alone, she said.
For this year’s competition, the topic was India. To prepare, they had to study history, culture, literature and politics and were tested on their knowledge.
They succeed or fail based on their brains and their preparation. It’s up to them, and that’s the attitude these kids have for school in general.
Star Lane is a different kind of school. The students are taught through a series of group projects. They investigate and research problems before writing and presenting solutions. Where most high schools teach subject-based classes, Star Lane teaches multiple subjects through a common theme.
The decathlon was one of their “problems” this year.
The team’s coach, Brack Micade, never had the opportunity to do something like a decathlon in school. If he had, he likely would have failed, he said. His students are different, and training them takes humility.
“The biggest challenge is not being right all the time,” he said. “It’s letting go and being able to trust these guys.”
In preparation for the decathlon, Micade said he mostly organized. The kids did all the work. They challenged themselves.
Being a different type of school leads to some misconceptions, the students said. They think of themselves as type-A students — devoted, hard-working and geeky. But outside the school there are a lot of theories about the type of kids that attend Star Lane.
Some think the school is only for geniuses, said Francesca. Others think the school is for kids who have been to juvenile detention, Hunter Hout, a senior, added.
“It’s really just (about) stepping out of your comfort zone,” Francesca said. “You are in charge of yourself here.”
Even at a unique school, the decathlon’s competitors stand out. They had to compete against their classmates to qualify for the school’s team. Then they competed in Wyoming, then against kids from across the country. Wednesday they go to Idaho for another national competition, mock trials.
The kids are proud of how far they’ve come. And they are proud of each other.
Kleo Vlastos is the youngest of the group. It’s impressive that a ninth grader made the team, Francesca said of her 15-year-old classmate.
When asked about college plans, Kleo’s classmates told her not to worry about that yet. She’s still young, they said.
By any measure, these nine students are high performers. They have goals, even as as far ahead as a career. Others are not yet sure what they want to major in, but know they’ll go to college.
And for kids that maybe aren’t at the top of their class, the Star Lane students have some advice.
Everyone learns differently, said Hunter.
“Never give up,” London advised. “Keep trying.”