Thursday 13th March 2008

Heather Macbeth: IMO 2004 Greece

My journey to the 2004 International Mathematical Olympiad began two and a half years earlier, the summer after my third-form year, when I attended my first NZMOC January camp. In one of the most influential weeks of my life so far, I caught a glimpse of what the NZ Maths Olympiad program could offer me: challenge, competition, glory, beautiful mathematics, lifelong friendships, and of course the obvious reward of a trip to an exciting and faraway place in a few years if I worked hard enough in the meantime. Within a few days I was hooked; by the end of the week I had set my goals. I would return to camp the next year, 2003, and be picked as a reserve for New Zealand’s IMO team that year. In 2004, with two years’ experience behind me, I would be good enough to make the team proper, and maybe as a seventh-former in 2005 I could win a medal.

After a year of weekly trainings and independent study, I attended my second January camp and, as I’d hoped, was made a reserve for the 2003 team. This meant that in 2003, as well as the usual Monday training and private study, I had six months of assignments and exams – the same training that the team itself received. This is designed to develop your ability to solve “difficult” IMO-level problems (as opposed to the “easy” problems encountered at the January camp!) The training was a struggle for me but it was worthwhile, since it meant that the next year, 2004, I found the camp and team selection tests comparatively easy, and finally was chosen for the NZ IMO team.

Flight to Greece

Mathematics on the flight to Greece.

Again I worked through months of training – books, notes, assignments, tests. For a month before I left I counted down the days, and finally the day arrived when I met up with the other Cantabrians and flew up to Auckland. Two weeks of intensive training followed – some in Auckland, some in Greece.

At its worst this was a discouraging slog; at its best this was the most challenging and inspiring maths I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible to feel prepared for the IMO, but by the last day or so I began to relax a bit and feel calmer.

The IMO itself was all I’d imagined. The exams went well and I won a bronze medal. Greece was beautiful, busy, hot and historic. The other teams were stimulating company: we were inseparable from the Irish, and developed friendly relations with everyone from Britain to Iran and from Luxembourg to (gasp!) Australia. The whole trip was as near perfect as it was possible to be.

So what have I got out of it? Well, a trip, obviously. It was my first time in Europe and it was really neat for me, having studied Greek language, to be able to visit Greece.

Theatre of Epidaurus

Theatre of Epidaurus.

Secondly, lots of friendships. The Maths Olympiad program is great for meeting people from all across New Zealand and from all over the world. The people involved in Olympiad maths tend to be interesting and extremely multitalented, and of course they share my obsession with maths. I’m still in touch with half the people I met at my first January camp, two and a half years ago.

Naturally, I’m also involved in the Maths Olympiad program because I love the maths. The problems are beautiful and elegant, and the Eureka moment that comes from solving one is enough to put me in a good mood for days. I also enjoyed the glory that comes from representing New Zealand at such a prestigious event – my fifteen seconds of fame! And being a very competitive person, I love the thrill of competing at a very high level.

For me, though, the best thing about the Maths Olympiad program is the challenge. At my first January camp, used to being reasonable effortlessly top of my classes in maths, I found it incredibly stimulating to feel stupid for a week or so. Olympiad maths is simply in a different league of difficulty from anything taught at school; there is a huge amount of material to learn, and a huge amount of experience needs to be gained. When you don’t find any school work particularly difficult, it’s very appealing to have a goal which takes several years of really hard work to accomplish. And accomplishing that goal – in my case a bronze medal – makes you feel incredibly satisfied.