| Great Falls Connection |
Odyssey Takes Team to World Championship

By Mike DiCicco
Middle-schoolers from Reston, Great Falls win state Odyssey of the Mind competition.

Six middle-school students from Great Falls and Reston have spent much of their free time over the last seven months or so working on a skit about the adventures of a pregnant, male demigod.

"It's been a lot of hard work, a lot of Fridays and Saturdays taken," said Alex Vagonis of Langston Hughes Middle School.

But the work has paid off. At the end of May, the students will head to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa to compete in the Odyssey of the Mind world championship.

After placing first in the regional competition in mid-March, the group beat out the 16 other teams in its category at the statewide competition in Newport News on April 17 and 18. Within their Division II age group, they are competing in this year's Problem 3, the Lost Labor of Heracles.

In Greek mythology, Heracles had to perform 10 labors, as assigned by King Eurystheus, to atone for killing his own children, explained Great Falls resident Michael Cooper, of Kilmer Middle School. Two of those labors were not accepted, so Heracles, who later became Hercules in Roman mythology, ended up performing 12. Teams competing in this problem had to come up with a 13th labor that the demigod, offspring of Zeus and a mortal woman, had performed and a reason why that labor was lost to history.

"We thought, OK, we'll make him pregnant and he's in labor," Michael said. The reason Heracles' pregnancy went unrecorded, according to the team's story, was that the baby was so incredibly ugly that Heracles and Eurystheus didn't want anyone to know of it.

"At states, we actually won all the different scoring categories," said Michael Chan of Langston Hughes.

The teammates were judged by a panel of seven judges according to elements of their skit, their style and their impromptu responses to a series of problems presented at the competition.

At each contest, the team got feedback from the judges and could adjust their skit accordingly. For example, Michael Cooper said, in their performance at the regional competition, the pregnant Heracles ran to the hospital, which perhaps was not entirely realistic. "So I was assigned the task, in one night, of building a chariot he could ride in on."

After Cooper built the basic vehicle, other team members added to it to make it look like a chariot, which then could be pulled to the hospital by Poindexter the Nerdy Horse, as played by Alex.

The team members worked painstakingly on their props. For example, Sharon Zhao, of Langston Hughes, said, the backdrops were made with bits of tissue paper glued to bed sheets. "It looks really nice, but it took a while," she said.

"They're an extraordinary group of kids and they kept me laughing," said Dave Cooper, who was one of the team's two coaches. As a coach, he was not allowed to contribute to the group's solution but had the role of "guiding them and keeping them generally productive, within the bounds that you can keep a group of 14-year-olds focused and productive," he said.

"I am just in total awe of these kids. They're just amazing," said Amy McElrath, mother of team member Sean McElrath, adding that strong teamwork set the group apart. "They all bring something different to the table, and it's all good," she said.

The students met in the GT program at Forest Edge Elementary School in Reston, and some have known each other since first grade. A few of them have competed together in Odyssey of the Mind for the last four years, while others joined more recently. This is the first year that all six have been on the team, and it's the first time any of them have made it to the world championship.

"So going to worlds on one of our first tries, it's amazing," Alex said.

Last year's world championship drew more than 950 teams from 30 countries, Michael Cooper said.

Alex noted that each team could choose a country that it wanted its "buddy team" to have come from. Members of buddy teams generally exchange contact information and keep in touch. "It's like a cultural festival within Odyssey of the Mind," she said.

"The closing ceremonies and the parties are these huge, huge deals," Michael Cooper said. The parties include a teen party, a preteen party and a "coaches' recovery party."

"I'm probably most looking forward to meeting all these people from all over the world," Michael said.

The team is now raising money to help fund the trip, which costs about $1,500 per family. A car wash at the Exxon in Great Falls last Saturday had netted almost $900 by 2 p.m. The next fund raiser has not yet been planned, but Michael Cooper said the group was considering making a presentation to the Great Falls Optimist Club.

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