TPHS students excel in national math competition

TPHS students Derek Liu (12), Elliott Liu (11) (no relation) and Jacopo Rizzo (11) recently received accolades in the USA Math Olympiad contest, held on March 21 and 22. Both Derek and Elliott received Gold Awards, awarded to the top 6% of competitors, and Rizzo received an Honorable Mention.

The USAMO is a two-day senior Math Olympiad competition that grants participants 4 and a half hours to complete three problems each day.

“I was kind of excited going into the test, and it was a fun experience just grappling with each problem,” Rizzo said. “It’s all quiet, everyone’s working, and it’s just you and the problems.”

Qualification for the USAMO, in which the top 500 contestants from the United States and Canada compete, depends on scores in the American Mathematics Competition 10, AMC 12 and the American Invitational Mathematics Examination. Of the USAMO participants, six students are selected to represent the U.S. at the International Math Olympiad.

For the second year in a row, Derek is among the six.

“I feel like I set myself a high goal last year,” Derek said. “I do want to do better this year, but it’s going to be tough. I haven’t left myself much room.”

Each year, 100 countries send their six-member teams to the IMO, the most prestigious high school math competition in the world. The U.S. team placed third behind China and Korea last year. On July 2-July 13 in Chiba City, Japan, Derek has his eyes set on gold.

“Our team is looking pretty strong,” Derek said. “There’s general agreement that first place is definitely a possibility this year. I guess there’s a bit of pressure there, but also quite a bit of excitement.”

But the most important thing Derek hopes to gain this year is not an award. “There’s going to be people from all sorts of diverse backgrounds,” Derek said. “I would call it a once-in-a-lifetime — but perhaps twice-in-a-lifetime is more accurate — opportunity to meet students from across the world who share my interests. There’s potential to build lifelong connections there.”

For Derek, Elliott and Rizzo, the journey to get to the elite competition level has been a long one. Derek took his first math competition, the AMC 8, when he was six years old, and Elliott when he was in fourth grade. Rizzo started to become engrossed in math when school shut down in March 2020 due to COVID-19.

“I asked my parents to get a bunch of math textbooks,” Rizzo said. “I spent all day for the first few months grinding through those textbooks, working through every problem and relearning them if I didn’t get them.”

Like Rizzo, Elliott and Derek devote a large amount of time outside of school to compete at their level, sometimes up to two hours a day, according to Elliott. But at other times, even for someone as accomplished as Derek, regular school can get in the way.

“Sometimes I just get bogged down by homework and can’t do math for a whole week,” Derek said. “Sometimes I just get bored and do seven hours of math, so it’s very variable.”

Unlike math in school, one cannot “study” for math competitions. Instead, the bulk of the time spent is working through problems alone.

“It’s a continuous process and it takes a lot of time, but luckily, I enjoy it,” Rizzo said. “I haven’t skipped math on any single day for the last few years. I kind of just pull up problems, even if it’s for 15 minutes, but on the weekends, math is probably my primary thing.”

According to Derek, however, there’s a common misconception that the more time you spend preparing for math competition, the better your chances.

“I know a lot of people in the math community who do two or three hours every day, and they assume that to get to a really high level, you have to do even more,” Derek said. “But it’s about quality, not quantity, of practice. If you spend three hours just attempting a problem and not solving it, then you’re not really gaining much. But if you spend one hour solving a problem by taking a hint halfway through, at least you’ve still gained some new knowledge and honed your problem-solving skills.”

At the end of the day, Derek, Elliott and Rizzo do what they do because they love it. Math is their passion. They live and breathe it.

But a significant part of their interest stems from the nature of contest math, which is drastically different from math in school.

“In school, it’s always clear how you get to the answer, which makes it very boring because you’re doing the same thing over and over again,” Derek said.

“In real math, you’re never actually told how to get to the answer, so you’re really exploring for yourself. It makes me feel like an explorer.”

Elliott agreed.

“It’s not like you look at a problem and come up with an answer,” Elliott said. “You have to apply past ideas that you’ve seen or come up with entirely new ideas to solve these problems; that’s what’s very interesting.”

To the unmindful eye, math may seem like a solo mission of sorts, where each competitor is individually venturing through their own complex maze, walled off from their peers.

But outside of competitions, behind the facade of solidarity, a small and tight-knit group of math enthusiasts exists.

“Throughout elementary school and middle school, there’s been a small community of people that take these math contests,” Elliott said. “It’s really nice to be a part of.”

Derek believes that the “nerd” label often applied to math whizzes is a misnomer.

“When you think that we study a lot, [you think] ‘Oh, we don’t want to go out and have fun,’” Derek said. “Well, for one, I find studying math fun, but also, I definitely do like to go out for some ‘actual leisure.’ I want to make it clear that I’m also a person.”

An extraordinary person, at that. For Derek, Elliott and Rizzo, this is just the beginning.

The path may never be clear and the solution may never be simple. Still, they do not seem to mind. To them, that’s where all the fun lies.
Read on Issuu.

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