IMO Diary Part 2: Contest

9th of July

Long story short, first day was not so well…

I didn’t sleep well yesterday and this morning I was quite a mess. I was on the bus and trying to wake my brain up by doing multiplications. Yet instead of waking up it just caused me to panic when I could not figure out what is 15 time 15 and what is 25 times 25.

After getting to the arena at a little past 8, I just sat there doing nothing. Can’t really do reviews now, as all our things are taken away from us except for some food and our pencil case. The contest was due to start at 9 and a half. I spent the hour trying to wake up and figure out what is 15 times 15. On my desk, there was a bottle of water, a banana, a few snacks, my name tag and the folder for the questions. In the folder, there was a sealed envelope containing today’s questions, in whatever language you like, and three smaller folders that you are supposed to put the answer sheets in. There are two types of paper, one yellow for scratch work, one green for a formal answer. There were 5 cards in the folder for “Water” “More paper” “Toilet” “Questions” and “Help”. If you need anything, raise the corresponding card. Before the test even started, I raised my white card to ask for more paper–10 pages that were given would not be enough, I knew.

4:30:00. The test would be 4 and a half hours long. I opened my envelope as the timer started ticking away, and was relieved to find Q1 to be a geometry–my strongest subject. Nice.

I scanned through the questions and quickly jotted down all thoughts that came to my mind. Geometry, use equal angles, similar triangles or perpendicular lines? The third one (Although the possibility of me even trying the third one is rare) is a combinatorics question—guessing, and induction? Sequences might be involved…  I have to use the first half an hour to make sure I understand the problems and have no doubts because, after the first half an hour, you are no longer allowed to ask questions.

I’m quite a beginner in Olympiad, so I am not expecting anything better than an honourable mention. Therefore I would focus all my energy in solving the first problem.

4:00:00 Geometry—get cracking! This one involves circles, isosceles triangles, and parallel lines. Not a common combination, I had to say. But the graph looked easy enough, and given the difficulty of the Q1 problem of the past few years were not high, I was fairly confident.

3:00:00 Wait, wait, wait… I wasn’t going anywhere! This keeps going round and round in circles! I assumed the wrong thing! I took a deep breath and asked for more paper.

2:30:00 I diverted my attention to Q2, an algebra question, hoping a ray of inspiration will hit me as I was busy thinking of something else.

However, my brain kept whispering: Algebra is not your strong suit! This is a Q2! Your best bet is on Q1 and I won’t have you not getting it because you wasted half an hour on a question that you won’t ever get out anyway. A wave of anxiety hit me as I was trying to figure out what should I do.

2:00:00 I was trembling. I raised the green card and escaped the room to go to the toilet. I ran to the toilet, locked myself in, raised my arms to form positive posture that according to Amy Cuddy (For anyone who have not seen her TED talk, super recommend!) will improve my confidence and overall performance. I splashed some water on my face—calmer now. I ran back to the exam hall. No time to lose!

I made up my mind now. Just do Q1— Even if I can’t get it out at least I can say I tried my best.

1:00:00 I drew my 5th graph of the problem and went over my data. Looking back, it’s amazing how fast time past when you’re stuck on a problem.

0:30:00 Although I know I still have hope I’m already accepting the possibility of not getting anything out of day 1. This was a cruel thought, my cheeks were burning and my head was throbbing and my hands are trembling. I told myself—relax, calm down, accept the fact and be happy. There’s nothing you can do about it, you tried your best, so be it. Walk out of here smiling.

0:20:00 I checked my answers, numbered them. I presented all I have, hoping, basically, to not get zero.  

0:10:00 I took one last frenzied look at the graph–ray of inspiration?

0:05:00 I wrote my name. Loudspeaker bellowed.

0:01:00 I put the answers into the folders. Arranged them neatly.

0:00:03. 0:00:02. 0:00:01. Time’s up. The timer turned red.

It was not a good feeling, walking out with a bad result. I was trying to be optimistic and telling myself that this is the first day, it was not over and also, it is the experience that matters, not the marks. But still, I did feel very disappointed with myself and it was still quite exhausting for me now, sitting here, half a year after, remembering it.

I stayed relatively calm and joyful after the exam and didn’t freak out. For the entire day afterwards I managed to push the thoughts of the exam into a box in the corner so that I could still focus on the present. We went shopping together…I thought it would be completely weird for us to, out of all the things, walk around a supermarket and not buying anything, but it turned out to be a fun and relaxing time.

After the hustle and turbulence of the day were finished, in the night lying by myself in the dark, I started reflecting. I comforted myself by thinking “I did my best” and of course internally I had doubts—did I actually try my best? Could I have done better? Could I have coped better and explore more and think more instead of just sticking that same point in the same question?

But the optimistic side, of course, was that there’s another day out there, and also—although it is a big cliche already— The marks weren’t everything and I just decided to try my best and go for another day.

10th of July

So this morning…

While walking into the big arena…

I had a eerie feeling that something BBBIIIGGG will happen.

I tribute this to the extra big mug of coffee I had this morning. But anyways, something did happen that morning, so who knows… sixth sense?

We arrived at the arena at around 8 o’clock, like yesterday. Less nervous I walked around the arena chatting to friends. I spent loads of time finding everybody from my team (when I found them, turns out everybody are at the table of the New Zealand team). I also managed to find my friend from Iran, friend from Ecuador, and friend from China.

Apparently, it wasn’t only me, everybody was much more relaxed than yesterday. A contestant was doing push-ups on the floor and his team members were around him counting. (I actually think this was the spark that inflamed everything that happened afterwards )

About 40 minutes to the exam start, I went to the bathroom and even before I re-entered the hall, I could hear roars of applause coming from the arena. Not wanting to miss anything, I speed-walked back and this is what I found (photo source: 2018 Cluj-Napoca facebook page)

Of course, I was shocked to find that a lot of my friends were lying down as if they were just having a relaxing day off in the warm sun on a Hawaiian beach. And the next thing I knew, I was lying down with them on the concrete floor, facing the bright fluorescent light. It really helped with the butterflies in my stomach.

But the next thing that happened made the butterflies flutter even quicker. The committee apparently thought it was a good idea to put on climatic music on the second day of the contest so the arena began filling with dramatic Start War type of music. The music was really tempting for something big to happen, maybe it was just me and my butterflies, but I thought I could even feel the tension building up inside the room.

After a while, everybody started getting up… and started taking a stroll around the hall. I mean, why not? A stroll was very healthy, particularly in an international exam hall with several hundred people including child prodigies and possibly future Field medal winners from all across the world. Soon everybody was in a parade, pulling their friends and motioning to the volunteers to join in. When the atmosphere had built to this extent it was impossible not to start running, so everybody started to jog. Frankly, the speed was quite fast and I was panting and sweating after just a couple of lapses. (Were the people leading this a maths prodigy AND sports champions?) But I felt not at all tired, I felt exhilarated, running alongside my friends, old and new, running in the stream of brilliant minds from all across the world.

After a while, everybody was getting a bit tired and had to stop for a while. Just when the parade seemed to be ending, a boy in a yellow shirt picked up the flag of IMO from the row of flags at the side of the room and started sprinting with the flag flying behind him. Soon, the flags of different countries joined in. The teammates of each country started grabbing their flag and running after it, and soon the entire scene seemed far too surreal. My vision was soon filled with the moving colour and the moving stream of people waving their flags, and I couldn’t pick up all the information that’s flowing around me all at once. Almost if I was travelling the world, almost as if I’m joining a global community. We change posts in leading the flag whenever one is too tired in sprinting. And have I mentioned the music?

We moved to the back the room after a while, and raised the flags over our heads and gathered them together. We raised them on tiptoes, trying to reach as high as we can.

View from below, the flags are shining under the light of the big arena, the flag of IMO being held among them. We hugged our friends, shook hands with strangers and right here the young people from all around the world were connected through one single event. It was maths and knowledge that surpassed the boundaries of countries and brought all these people together under one roof.

We finally put the flags back where they belong and then slowly sat down. It was 10 minutes to the exam. The music slowly died down. But I was still panting and heaving from excitement, and I felt a strong surge of confidence as I looked at the folder with my challenge inside. I turned around, and smiled to the Indian contestant sitting to my left to whom I have never talked to before, and said: ”Good luck!”.

Am I over-romanticizing this? I must admit that I might be, as I thought that this will make world news but later nothing happened. But I was so very deeply affected by this event, I was almost on the brink of tears as I hugged my teammates and my friends from around the world.

Raising the flag of Ireland there in that Arena almost felt like raising the Olympic flame to me, and the resemblance is very strong in my opinion. One of my teammates later joked that this might be the closest we have ever come to world peace…