By Joe Tash
For many high school students, the two most dreaded words in the English language are “math test.”
Not so for Thomas Swayze, 17, a junior at Canyon Crest Academy. Thomas gets so much satisfaction from figuring out complex math problems that he voluntarily takes grueling math tests in his spare time, for fun.
Last month, Thomas competed in the USA Mathematical Olympiad, a nine-hour test given over two days, containing only six math problems. The results were announced on Wednesday, May 9: Thomas was one of 12 winners nationwide, and one of only five students to earn a perfect score. He was also chosen for the U.S. national mathematics team that will compete this summer in an international Olympiad to be held in Argentina, which will include teams from about 90 countries.
Thomas is the first San Diego County high school student to win the prestigious U.S. math contest, said Brian Shay, his teacher and math team coach.
“It’s basically the Olympics for math,” said Shay of the national contest. “Like Michael Phelps is to swimming, Thomas Swayze is to math.”
The competition centers on “proof-based problems,” in algebra and geometry, which are on par with work that college undergrads or even graduate students might be expected to master, Shay said.
“It’s deeper and more theoretical than math students are used to in high school,” said Shay.
Before heading to Argentina, Thomas will participate in a three-week math training program at the University of Nebraska, the headquarters of the Mathematical Association of America, which sponsors the Olympiad competition. He’s attended the training program the past two summers. Olympiad winners will also be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. in June.
Thomas said he first knew he was interested in math at a very young age, when he would count anything he saw, including sand bags at a construction site near his family’s home. By elementary and middle school, he had begun competing in math contests.
“I just liked doing the problems, that’s how I got into this,” Thomas said. “I like the connections and relationships that I can see. It just has an appeal to me.”
For the Olympiad, Thomas and 17 other San Diego County contestants gathered at UCSD. The test was broken into two four-and-a-half hour sessions, and contestants had to maintain complete silence during the entire event.
In order to successfully solve the problems, Thomas said, contestants not only had to come up with the right answer, but they had to explain why their answer was the only possible solution to the problem. Competing in the Olympiad requires both math and writing skills, he said, because much of the exercise involves the written explanation of how the problems were solved.
Thomas said he is driven less by the competition with other students than the challenge of solving complex mathematical problems. “I just want to solve it. I don’t want to get beat by the problem,” he said.
Although he doesn’t focus as much on the competitive aspect of the Olympiad, he said, “It’s pretty cool to know there’s five perfect scores and I’m one of them.”
Shay said the Canyon Crest math club has 20 to 30 active members, who gather twice weekly to polish their problem-solving skills, and also compete in a variety of math contests with other schools. Another student, Paolo Gentile, won this year’s junior math Olympiad, Shay said.
The Olympiad is intended to build on students’ interest in math, and discover math talent that can be developed into tomorrow’s professors and theoreticians, Shay said.
Thomas said he’s not sure yet what field he’ll pursue, whether he wants to be a professor or researcher or use his math skills in a more practical field, like the stock market. But he’s interested in attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and seeing where his interest and aptitude in numbers can take him.
“I’m most interested in the pureness of math itself. But the nice thing about math is that it’s so broad it can take you in a lot of directions,” he said.
Below are links to the six problems — and their solutions — featured in this year’s USA Mathematical Olympiad: