Music from “Chariots of Fire” boomed from the PA system as the first few fans drifted into the stadium.
It seemed appropriate. After all, St. Pius X Catholic High School students were gathering on this chilly March morning to watch chariot races.
Yes, chariot races.
For a few hours one recent weekday, north DeKalb County felt a little bit like ancient Rome as helmeted charioteers urged beasts of burden to pull wheeled chariots around the track and across the finish line at St. Pius’ stadium.
Hundreds of students huddled in the stands and cheered their favorites as five teams of charioteers and their steeds vied for the traditional laurels marking the victor. The teams, each designated by a team color, adopted names chosen to strike fear deep into the hearts of their competitors: Albus Leo, Latin for “white lion”; The Fast and Furious Factor; The Gorgeous Godly Green Gang; Smurfs; The Golden Snitch.
Wait. The Golden Snitch? The speedy little winged ball from Hogwarts’ favorite game? Why was a fictional teen wizard’s favorite game cropping up in a contest better associated with Julius Caesar’s time? “We’re Harry Potter fanatics,” team member Kaitlyn Horvath said.
Well, OK. This wasn’t exactly “Ben Hur,” after all. In this chariot race, the steeds were students, and the winners’ crowns were woven from plastic ivy.
This was Latin class. Or more precisely, the second annual chariot race staged by Latin teacher Susan Belmonte’s Latin III students. “We were hopeful last year,” Belmonte admitted. “We called it the first annual.”
The idea for the race came up last year when one of her students casually asked if the class could hold a chariot race. “I said, ‘Yes, we can,’” she said. A tradition of sorts was born.
“I think it’s a great way for students to make the connection with what they’re studying to reality,” she said. “Chariot races are very popular. How else can you fill the stadium?”
It seems to work. The race helped recruit at least one student for Latin this year. “It was one of the reasons I decided to take Latin III,” said Dan Rufolo, who piloted the winning chariot this year. “I saw it last year and it was very entertaining.”
The students made and raced the chariots as a class project. Two of the chariots started life as garbage cans. The others looked like assemblages of scrap wood.
But with the addition of some wheels – say, from a garden cart – they turned their constructions into vehicles fit for a race ‘round the track. Only one failed to make it around at least once. The Smurf’s blue chariot came apart in the second turn.
Latin students took the parts usually played by horses and dragged the carts around the track.
“Being a horse is good,” said Curtis Doelling, who, with Vincent Fortuna, made a matched pair of lacrosse players who pulled the winning Albus Leo chariot. “We trained by taking Vincent’s dogs for runs around the neighborhood.”
Now Belmonte is considering what comes next. What should her Latin IV class do next year?
“Maybe,” she said, thinking aloud, “a gladiatorial fight?”
Latin students, start training now.