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Academic Decathlon History

The first Academic Decathlon took place in Bolsa Grande, California, in 1968. It grew out of a single educator’s conviction: that teamwork and competition can inspire academic success for every student.

The first Academic Decathlon took place in Bolsa Grande, California, in 1968.

Dr. Robert Peterson first dreamed of creating a program like this one as a prisoner-of-war in Nazi Germany. In his journal, pondering the future of education in the country he was serving, the downed B-17 pilot wrote that students “ought to have… a decathlon of studies.”

It would be nearly 25 years before he could realize that dream as a school superintendent. “Our students can work hard and do have spunk and stamina,” he assured voters in his county. “Competition in learning… not only helps to achieve greatness, but maturity and self-fulfillment.”

Core elements of that first Academic Decathlon® would be instantly recognizable to participants today. Dr. Peterson required each team include not just students with the highest grade point averages, but also those with more modest “B” and “C” averages. Each group, he believed, would benefit in different ways—whether it was the A students practicing new social skills or the C students building new study habits.

Whatever their background, every participant would learn everything the program had to offer: there would be no specialization. Even students who were afraid of math would learn to excel on a math exam; even those afraid of public speaking would learn to deliver a speech.

Driven by the success of that first tournament, the Academic Decathlon quickly expanded through California and beyond. We held our first national championship in 1982, and welcomed one state after another to the program in the years that followed. What had begun as a tournament became a tradition—what had begun as a competition became a community.  

Different states have dominated the national finals over the years—like any sport, Academic Decathlon® has its dynasties—but the program’s true success has been at the grassroots, in the lives of its participants in every community. Tens of thousands have gone to college who might never even have applied if not for their experiences in the Academic Decathlon®—the mentorship of their coaches, the support of their teammates. Hundreds of thousands have improved their study skills, discovering new strengths and passions and connecting with fellow learners and future leaders across town and across the country.

Forty-five years since that first competition in Bolsa Grande, the Academic Decathlon journeys on into a new century. The program will continue evolving to meet the educational needs of each new generation, but that same original conviction of Dr. Peterson’s still drives it: that spunk and stamina are at the heart of every champion, and that there is a champion in the heart of every student.


More Information on Our History

Board Member Hall of Fame

USAD History

USAD History Addendum 2008-2012

USAD History Addendum 2012-2021