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The Path to the International Math Olympiad

How a team of high schoolers became world champions

The path to the International Math Olympiad starts far earlier than high school, and it is not always an easy one. It requires support from adults, the right kind of instructional and enrichment opportunities at the right time, countless hours of independent study, and most importantly, incredible tenacity and drive. 

In July 2019, the U.S. team tied with China for first place in the 60th International Math Olympiad (IMO), held in Bath, United Kingdom. The six U.S. team members all won gold medals for their individual high scores in the IMO, known as the world championship mathematics competition for high school students.

We spoke with two members of the winning team, Colin Tang and Luke Robitaille. While they experienced very different paths on their way to the IMO—one as a public school student in Washington and the other homeschooled in Texas—they shared some common touch points along the way. Both exhibited a strong interest in math starting at a young age. Both were active members of the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) community through courses and discussions, and both participated in a series of increasingly competitive math contests over the years.

Colin, who is now a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), says his interest in math was fostered by his parents, beginning at a young age. While he did have a few supportive teachers along the way, he often felt on his own in his pursuit of advanced math at school. Starting in fourth grade, he began taking math courses at the local high school. This meant traveling between campuses each day, but it was a choice Colin was willing to make to learn the challenging content he was ready to tackle at the time. 

In middle school, Colin was keenly interested in participating in a competition called MATHCOUNTS, so he began asking fellow students and teachers for advice, attending lectures, reading recommended books, and taking AoPS courses. He took the AoPS Worldwide Olympiad Training (WOOT) course in seventh grade, but it proved too difficult at the time. When he retook it again the following year, he began to get real value from the experience. 

“What’s different about the WOOT class is that, in addition to lectures and homework, it gives you other materials like lecture notes, supplementary problems, and a forum for people to post questions and answer them. The forum was a good place for me to connect with other math enthusiasts and really challenge myself.”

Luke Robitaille, currently in tenth grade, never participated in traditional schooling. Instead, he was homeschooled from the time he was preschool age. When he was six years old, his mother learned about AoPS from other homeschooling mothers. Having already used other, more standard algebra and geometry curricula, Luke started using all four AoPS Introduction to… books (Introduction to Algebra, Introduction to Counting & Probability, Introduction to Geometry, and Introduction to Number Theory) and continued with more AoPS books. He also took the AoPS WOOT course twice.

“AoPS courses were particularly useful to me during my formative years, especially the introductory and intermediate series,” said Luke. “That was just right for me at the time.” 

Advice for aspiring math Olympians

Reflecting on their paths to the IMO and the many hours of practice and independent work that was required along the way, Colin and Luke offer the following advice to aspiring math Olympians.

“Don’t expect a lot of support from your school,” said Colin. “You may be largely on your own in terms of seeking out appropriately challenging material. The best way to prepare isn’t necessarily to take a class, but rather to engage regularly with hard ideas yourself, and above all, be receptive to new ideas and actively seek them out. I learned that If you want to be really good at something, you have to understand your ‘why.’ If it’s because you don’t want to lose, that will lead to unhappiness later on.”

Luke advised, “If you want to get good at math, do math because you like doing it and find resources that will be at the right level for you. Don’t worry about competition results. You can enjoy them regardless of the outcome. It’s important to have the right attitude.”

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