This Is How They Did It

Decathlon officials save market appeal for the final day of competition. In many ways, it captures the zeitgeist of the whole affair. As Catalano puts it, “Market appeal is architecture. You can design something that’s kind of generic and very pleasing and livable. But you can also design something that’s really marketable and architecturally forward thinking.” It’s fitting that the contest’s 100 points will shuffle the standings one last time and determine the final winners.

As we file past the leader board, into the big tent, the overall scores are so close that any team is liable to be unseated. Middlebury trails fifth-place Ohio State by a single point, but California, sitting in fourth, by more than 10. Fifteen minutes before the ceremony begins, it’s standing room only.

Energy secretary Chu delivers a few remarks. China, he reminds the audience, extended more than $30 billion in government financing to its solar industries last year. Dozens of other enlightened countries, among them Israel, Canada, and Germany, support small-scale solar projects by buying excess kilowatt-hours at a generous price. “Some say this is a race America can’t win.”

The glass plaques appear for the winners of market appeal. New Zealand and Maryland, which seem to mount the stage for nearly every contest, quickly take third and second. Both finished net-zero and are set to run away with overall victories.

At the podium, a juror describes the house that won market appeal.

“The home features a magnificent, chef-style kitchen, with herbs in the window space and a view to the outdoor vegetable garden. The private spaces give real privacy. Durable, natural, low-resource finishes and a lifecycle approach to material selection will also appeal to the market. Slate floors in the wet areas are practical and beautiful. Way to go, Middlebury!”

It’s a veritable roar from where I’m standing. I choke up a little—can I admit this?—watery eyes and tight throat. The students’ utter elation, the schmaltzy Journey song on the PA, the contagious pride of being close to something so hard won.

When they come down off the stage, Godine is holding a score sheet. The 95 points have vaulted them up and over Ohio State and California into a fourth-place overall finish.

Nelson looks like a new father outside a delivery room, thrilled and a little overwhelmed. “This is like the beginning,” he says. “It’s the beginning of all these students changing the future. I’m speechless, really. Underdogs doesn’t begin to describe how we started this thing.”

Looking at the scores and doing a bit of mental math, Cornbrooks sighs and smiles his crooked smile.

“Two more hours of sun and it would have been second place. That’s how it goes sometimes.”

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