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Gunn student walks away with a historic victory in Rome

Abhivir Iyer takes seven medals at the International History Olympiad in Rome.

Abhivir Iyer's grueling path to victory wound through the war zones of Africa, the lands of the ancient Maurya Empire, the Catholic cathedrals of Europe and the discography of Taylor Swift.

It involved years of training and seven days in sweltering conditions in a Roman hotel, where he was subject to an array of mental and physical tests involving question sheets and electric buzzers.

And it ended with the 16-year-old Gunn High student returning from Italy with a healthy haul five gold medals and two silver medals that cemented his status as Palo Alto's international man of history.

Iyer, who hosts a podcast dedicated to local history, was one of 258 students from all over the world who converged on Rome for the International History Olympiad. The seven days of competition tested participants' knowledge in categories that spanned the world and included everything from pop music to the Catholic church.

Competitors were required to tackle questions as varied as: What conflict was sparked by the downing of a plane carrying Juvnal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira? What battle did Ashoka the Great fight in? What year did Taylor Swift release her first album? (Answers are at the bottom of this story.)

They competed in teams of three and as individuals, plowing through hours-long multiple-choice tests and buzzer-beating competitions where reaction time is nearly as important as erudition.

Iyer, who was born in Boston and who moved to Palo Alto when he was 6, was undaunted. He has been living and breathing history since his earliest years, a passion that he attributes to his family background and upbringing.

His parents were born in India, and he makes regular trips to Bombay, where his relatives reside. His mother's side also has roots in Pakistan.

Iyer recalled hearing tales as a child about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the accompanying exodus of many Hindu residents across the border to India.

"I heard stories from my grandfather about how their parents had to reset their lives and trek hundreds of miles to get to India with no money," Iyer said. "They had to start fresh and rebuild."

The family experiences led him to explore and to better understand other diaspora stories, whether the Jewish diaspora of the 1500s or the more recent waves of immigrants bound for the United States.

He connects his own family history with those of others as part of a "unified version of history that incorporates everyone's stories."

"If you know your ancestors were refugees at one point, it allows you to empathize with refugees," he said.

His view of the world continued to expand as he moved to Palo Alto and began exploring local lore while also learning about other cultures moving through Europe, Africa and Latin America.

By the time he was in fifth grade, he was competing with other history buffs across the state. He made it to the regionals and then to the nationals before getting "decimated," as he recalled in an interview.

"People there have been studying history and learning about history of all these countries for their whole lives," he said.

As Iyer continued to compete, first as a middle school student and then in the junior varsity category, the competitions only got harder. History, he noted, is far more than just memorizing names and dates.

The Olympiad, which kicked off on July 23 and stretched for a week, had about 30 different competitions, with topics including art, classical music and Sardinian history. The days were long, with students waking up at about 6 a.m. and staying up until 11 p.m.

"It's not for the weak the heart," he said.

It also didn't help that Italy was going through a heatwave that week, with temperatures hovering above 100 degrees. The venue didn't have air conditioning, Iyer said, and he had to carry a portable fan with him to deal with sauna-like conditions.

He didn't sweat it, however, when it came to South Asian history, winning a gold medal in the category on the second day of the competition.

He took another gold in the "Battery Exam," a test with more than 500 multiple choice questions in which wrong answers get you negative points. ("They batter you with questions until you're exhausted," he recalled when asked about the name.)

He also got gold in in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics History Bee, a topic for which Silicon Valley prepared him well.

He also made his mark in the team competition, where he was grouped with two other California students. The team took the top prize in the Hextathlon a series of six different events and in the International History Bowl World Championships, a buzzer-beating competition with four rounds of rapid-fire questions.

In individual contests, he brought home silver medals in the International History Bee World Championships and in the Recent History Bee.

The experience was both thrilling and exhausting. Iyer said he was overjoyed as he stepped up to the podium to receive his medals and relieved to finally have access to air conditioning.

Above all, however, he said he valued the education he received during his week in Rome. He also enjoyed having a chance to apply all the knowledge he has accumulated over his years of reading, quizzing himself and watching history videos.

"I went in with an open mind: if I win medals, I win. If not, I'll still learn something. That's what matters."

Now, he hopes to spread the joy of learning to others. As a history buff in the heart of Silicon Valley, Iyer recognizes that he has chosen a road less traveled.

Last year, he attended a symposium hosted by the Palo Alto Historical Association in which he was by far the youngest history enthusiast in the crowd. And he is well-accustomed to other students in his age group being more focused on science and technology.

Iyer said he too finds these areas fascinating (and he can discuss Fairchild and Shockley with the best of them), but he wants to introduce more people his age and younger to the world beyond tech.

"Everyone is into machine learning, AI and writing code. No one explores the other side of studying history, English and the arts," he said. "I found it hard to believe that these other options weren't as popular as tech."

Hoping to inspire others, Iyer recently launched last spring a history podcast called "Palo Alto in 60 Seconds" in partnership with the city of Palo Alto Library. The pithy episodes, which are each actually around 3 or 4 minutes long, tackle topics such as rise of Silicon Valley, the birth of Stanford University and the reason why Palo Alto has two downtowns (short answer: alcohol).

Iyer, who is now starting his junior year at Gunn, said he wants to help his peers "explore the world" and not just think about one subject at the expense of everything else.

"History allows you to connect to your roots," he said. "It allows you to serve the community in other ways."

The answers to the questions in the fifth paragraph are: The Rwanda genocide, the Kalinga War and 2006.


About the Author: Gennady Sheyner

Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before that he covered news and politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut.
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