THE GAMES WERE OVER, AND TEAM U.S.A. had triumphed over 68 other countries. Now all that remained were the award ceremonies. That’s when 17-year-old Stephen Wang of St. Charles, Ill., realized he had lost his dress shoes and would have to stand up onstage wearing sneakers. Teammate Noam Shazeer of Swampscott, Mass., came to the rescue—sort of. Noam switched one of his shoes for one of Stephen’s sneakers, and both students appeared wearing one shoe and one sneaker.
Even eccentrically shod, the six members of the U.S. team, competing in the prestigious nine-hour International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong last month, did what the U.S. soccer team failed to do in the World Cup. They beat the world’s best, including the highly favored Chinese and Russians, and made history with a perfect score, the first in the 35-year history of the games. “We suspected we had won long before we knew for sure,” says team member Jeremy Bem, 17, of Ithaca, N.Y., “because scores were coming out bit by bit. When we knew we had it, we had a big group hug, jumped up and down and sang a lot.”
What Bem and his teammates—Aleksandr Khazanov, 15, of New York City; Jacob Lurie, 16, of Bethesda, Md.; Jonathan Weinstein, 17, of Lexington, Mass., along with Wang and Shazeer, 18—accomplished was the equivalent of pulling six perfect 10s. And they aced six doozies such as this one: “Show that there exists a set A of positive integers with the following property: For any infinite set S of primes there exist two positive integers m in A and n not in A, each of which is a product of K distinct elements of S for some k greater than one.” That problem was the one that poleaxed the Chinese team, with three of its members whiffing completely.
The six Americans, culled from the more than 350,000 high school students who took the American School Mathematics Examination last February, had spent four math-saturated weeks in training at the U.S. Naval Academy. “I’ve loved math for as long as I can remember,” says Bem, whose parents are psychology professors at Cornell University, which he will attend this fall. “I think that I’ll probably end up as a math professor.”
In those other Olympics, that is called turning pro.