Proud to be a mathlete

In the fall of sophomore year, I was coerced into joining the Greenwich Academy Math Team. And while I have always liked math, I wasn’t particularly interested in pursuing it outside the classroom.

My algebra teacher, however, spotted a potential mathlete in me and refused to take no for an answer. So I reluctantly began attending weekly practices to prepare for monthly meets. And now, two years later, I am a proud Math Team tri-captain.

I have to admit enjoying our Dunkin’ munchkin-stocked morning practices, but competing against other high school students is the real highlight for me. Outsiders are disappointed to learn that Fairfield County Math League meets are not conducted in the face-to-face manner featured in the movie Mean Girls, but participants know they can be equally exciting.

Before each meet begins, teams of six students from 25 schools in the area gather around tables in the Wilton High School cafeteria to fuel their brains with pizza and devise their strategies. The tables are firmly established and occupying another school’s table is taboo. This is an excellent time for people watching and overhearing spirited debates about everything from characters in Lord of the Rings to the nature of infinity.

All meets consists of six rounds, each concerning a different mathematical topic, and every team member completes three, so there are ultimately three scores per team for six rounds. As we huddle in the cafeteria, an official calls out “Round 1!” and three young mathematicians from each school are herded up a narrow staircase. Upstairs in a quiet classroom, each student selects a desk and is handed a paper with three printed questions face down.

This is the point when my nerves usually set in. I anxiously grip the corner of my sheet, ready to flip it immediately and discover what problems are presented. When all the papers have been passed out, the official blows a whistle, signaling the start of the 10-minute round.

While I would never argue that Math Team is a sport, my adrenaline levels in those 10 minutes undoubtedly soar to those of an athlete. The feeling I get when I realize I know how to solve a problem is like that of a player on a fast breakaway. The goal is in reach and it’s merely a matter of finishing or, in my case, doing the precise arithmetic.

The difference is that in sports, there are a million ways to score a goal, as well as many ways to help a team indirectly. In math, there is only one way to score points and there are no assists. Only by reaching the exact answer can I benefit my team.

In this high-pressure environment, I’m lucky to be part of a team that — like all Greenwich Academy teams — is fiercely competitive but acknowledges every loss as an opportunity for growth. Despite my frustration when I make a basic mistake (like accidentally multiplying 2 x 2 = 6), my teammates never blame me for costing us easy points. Instead, we all take note to check our work more thoroughly next time.

Two years ago, I never imagined calling myself a mathlete, let alone taking pride in this status. Because of my initial resistance to joining the team, I have focused my leadership this fall on recruiting new members and raising general enthusiasm, an endeavor that involved designing custom T-shirts featuring the GA gator perched on the Greek letter pi.  I’m fortunate to have had a teacher that encouraged me to take a risk, and my experience on Math Team has taught me valuable lessons on keeping an open mind.

Sarah Better is a senior at Greenwich Academy.

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