Doug Robinson: Champion of the academic decathlon

Published: Monday, March 24 2014 8:35 p.m. MDT

IOKA, Duchesne County — Did you hear the story about the small-town girl who took on all comers in the state high school academic decathlon and won, handily?

No, probably not. That’s because the event was pretty much ignored.

We’ve got it all backward, you see. We lavish attention — awards, news coverage, facilities, money — on athletics, not academics. This is because it’s more fun to watch someone hit a home run than write an essay on Chaucer.

But consider the feats of Diantha Lemon, a senior at Union High School. Earlier this month, she competed in the Utah Academic Decathlon at Dixie State University. She not only won, she scored 8,930 points, which means absolutely nothing to you, so let’s put it in perspective.

“It’s a fabulous score,” says Ed Rogers, the state director of the academic decathlon. “It is an extremely high score. Out of a possible 11,000 points, she scored 8,930, and that’s coming from a girl from a small school. She is a very bright girl to be able to do that. I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and that (score) rates with the best.”

Matt Nagel wrote an email to brag about Diantha’s score, and he’s not even her coach; he coaches the powerhouse Park City team. “I’m writing to tell you about a young lady from Union High School who did a remarkable feat over the week: Diantha Lemon scored 8,930 points in the Utah Academic Decathlon. That’s pretty incredible. … Our team’s top scholar got a (perfect score) 36 on the ACT and is a National Merit finalist — and Diantha beat him by 800 points!”

Greg Hansen, the decathlon coach at Union High, says, “It’s one of the high scores in state history, but I don’t know exactly where it would rank. I was rather shocked by her score.”

Maybe an explanation of the test is in order. It’s a grueling two-day event, like the athletic version of the decathlon. Students are given 50-question tests in social science, science, language and literature, art, music, economics, and mathematics, in addition to completing an interview, speech and essay.

Diantha nearly swept all of the individual categories, winning gold medals in language and literature, music, art, math, economics and social science, plus the silver medal in science.

This would probably be a good time to mention that Diantha won the academic decathlon last year, as a junior. And she was the silver medalist as a sophomore.

That the girl comes from a town so small that it doesn't even qualify as a town only adds to the intrigue. She lives in Ioka, which is near Myton (population: 600) and Roosevelt (6,000), home to Union High (600). Her family has lived in the Uintah Basin for more than 100 years, and she has lived in the same house all her life.

The youngest of eight children, she sports a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. The last time she earned anything less than an A was in a sixth-grade computer class — which she blames on her poor typing skills.

Diantha has no cellphone, and grew up in a household where the TV is rarely on and video games don’t exist because they are considered a waste of time, and she’s not interested in those things anyway. In the summer she works for her father James’ small construction business. She says things like: “I enjoy learning about everything — music and art and language and literature and math. Not so much science. I love learning. I like finding new things and making connections. You can see the connections between different parts of life — for instance, how World War I influenced architecture, music, literature and even science.”

Diantha estimates that she spent 300 hours a year studying for the academic decathlon in addition to the homework and study she applied to her regular school classes and the three mornings a week she arrived at school early to play trombone in the jazz band. She reviewed flashcards and reading material between or during classes or whenever she could because free time was in short supply.

“Well, I don’t have to tell her to do her homework, that’s for sure,” says Diantha’s mother, Louise. “She’s a smart kid and works hard. She won’t watch TV even if I’m watching it. She just goes and studies. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you relax and watch TV?’ ”

Diantha is weighing scholarship offers from local universities. She plans to study business administration. In the meantime, the national academic decathlon championship will be decided in April in Hawaii. Diantha will not be going. Only the winning team (in this case, Bingham High) advances to nationals — not the individual winner.

“At nationals this year, a bunch of kids will break 8,000,” wrote Nagel, “but they will be from huge California and Texas schools or from Chicago … not Roosevelt.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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