Vail Christian wins its third state academic decathlon title in four years |

Vail Christian wins its third state academic decathlon title in four years

Vail Christian High School's academic decathlon team won its third state title in four years. They are, back row from left, Alec Campbell and Stuart McDonald. Front row from left: Jessica Richie, Sarah Sweet, Sophia Brenden, Larkin Smith, Christina Cheesman, Rachel Keith, Mary Sweet. They travel to Disneyland for the national finals.
Randy Wyrick| |

To help

The Vail Christian High School academic decathlon team is raising money to go to the national finals in Disneyland. Contact Barbara Wilson at VCHS, 970-766-4106, or email

EAGLE COUNTY — When it comes to smart kid smackdown, no one smacks like the Saints.

Vail Christian High School’s academic decathlon team won its third state title in four years and its second in a row, beating runner up Frontier Academy — a Boulder charter school — for all three titles.

This year, they won by 38 points, which is a bunch if you’re a basketball team. In an academic decathlon it’s one question among thousands that Vail Christian answered correctly, and which Frontier Academy did not.

Final score: Vail Christian 32,512, Frontier Academy 32,473.

About that one question. They think it was math.

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“We were headed in and someone said, ‘Hey, learn this formula,’ said Stuart McDonald. “We did and it was on there, and we answered it correctly.”

And that sort of preparation, young people, is how champions are made.

‘We’re going to Disneyland!’

You know that TV commercial where some title-winning athlete grins into the camera and says, “I’m going to Disneyland!”

Vail Christian High School’s academic decathlon team actually means it.

This year’s nationals are in Disneyland, April 15-17.

At last year’s nationals, they were named best rookie team and finished in the top 10.

This year they’re not rookies, at least not three of them.

Mary Sweet, Larkin Smith and Christina Cheesman made the trip to Hawaii for last year’s nationals.

At this year’s state academic decathlon meet, Vail Christian brought home 39 medals. Mary Sweet won 11, Smith and Christina Cheesman won nine each.

Next year, the nationals are in Alaska. They’re not making travel plans yet. The competition is good and getting better.

“The whole team was so well prepared. Because they know what it takes, it makes it possible for the people coming back to win it again,” Mary Sweet said.

“We’re all close outside of this. We’re best friends, so that helped us, too,” Keith said.

“Instead of having to act like a team, we are one,” Mary Sweet said.

The Sustainable Seven

This year was about innovations in sustainable and environmentally-friendly energy, which it way more complex that strapping on a Greenpeace T-shirt.

They had to be experts in seven categories:

• Art

• Economics

• Language and Literature

• Mathematics

• Music

• Science

• Social Science

Yes, there will be a test, seven tests, in fact, worth 1,000 points each and they’ll be hard.

Then you have to give a speech, dazzle the judges in an interview and write an essay for 50 minutes. You choose one of three subjects they give you. It can be any length you want, but you’ll be writing for 50 minutes.

“You need to be a good student, a good speaker, have good interpersonal skills for the interview,” said Mary Sweet. “It translates into real life. It’s not just something you do for a grade.”

Brain training

They get together a few days a week to train, learning massive stacks of material, but there’s so much more they need to know.

They have all kinds of late night study sessions during which they pound as much information into their heads as they can, and break it down into tiny bits to figure out how it’s all interconnected … and it always is.

Teachers come in to help with specific subject areas. The team gives up something — art, music, Physical Education — to take this class, which will require an enormous commitment of time and energy, said Barbara Wilson, Vail Christian’s Spanish teacher and academic decathlon coach.

Keith and the other upper classmen have seen enough of these quizzes and tests to understand how they work.

“You begin to see a pattern in the questions and how they’re phrased,” Keith said.

Vail Christian High School is small, so they get to know each other and how everyone learns.

“We can all teach each other,” Smith said.

And they do.

Yes, they’re in it to win it. But they’re also in it for each other, and they can’t win it if their teammates aren’t strong, Mary Sweet said.

Mind games

Then there are the mind games that even smart kids play. A couple competitors blew through the economics test in minutes, then spent their time napping and snoring. When they weren’t doing that, they were talking about how well they had done on a particular test, trying to get into the competition’s heads.

“It might not make any difference on the test we just took, but it might on the next one,” Sarah Sweet said.

It didn’t, as it turned out.

‘Are we gonna win?’

The awards ceremony is a little like the Miss Universe pageant. The longer they don’t call your name, the happier you are.

Before last year’s state academic decathlon meet, one team was so confident that they had bought tickets to Hawaii before the state competition. Along with enough stuff to win an academic decathlon, the Vail Christian kids know stuff about the Bible. For example, Proverbs 16:18 tells us that “Pride cometh before the fall.”

There is no instant gratification. They had to wait all day — 12 hours — and were ready to finish second.

“We were putting our stuff down and getting ready to take the stage when they announced the runner up,” Sarah Sweet said. “Frontier Academy seemed to be going up all the time to collect their medals.”

The awards ceremony was nerve-wracking. As winners for each individual category were announced, Vail Christian and Frontier Academy kept trading the lead.

As soon as they announced Frontier Academy was runner-up, the Vail Christian contingent went berserk, in a graceful and sportsmanlike kind of way.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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