TORONTO — The name Alex Song is spoken in reverential tones in Canadian mathematical circles.
The 18-year-old won the International Mathematical Olympiad in Thailand in mid-July, achieving the rare perfect score in the two-day competition against more than 600 high school competitors from 104 countries.
Song has had an incredible run over the past six years, finishing with five gold medals and one bronze against the best in the world. Now he sits atop the all-time leaderboard, ranking first on the Olympiad’s Hall of Fame.
The Olympiad is a big deal in math. Previous participants have gone on to win prestigious international awards such as the Fields Medal, given out to a few mathematicians under 40 years old, every four years. It’s considered by many as the highest honour in mathematics.
For Song, the Olympiad win wasn’t that big of a deal.
“I was definitely very happy at the same time,” he says. “But, I mean, it was just whatever happened.”
Song just graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite academic boarding school in New Hampshire. He is modest about his achievement.
“I felt like I was very lucky to solve all the problems, but at the same I’m not sure if any of the problems gave me trouble,” he said from his parents’ home in San Jose, Calif. He grew up in Waterloo, Ont., until moving to New Hampshire to start high school in 2011.
His coach, leader of Math Team Canada, made up for Song’s nonchalance.
“The results are fantastic,” said a jubilant Jacob Tsimerman, a math professor at the University of Toronto. “Alex is unique and destined for greatness.”
The United States took first overall in the team competition, which was established in 1959.
Canada finished ninth overall, ending up in the Top 10 for the third time in the past four years. It’s a big change from the previous 30 years when Canada regularly found itself finishing among the top 20 or 30 countries.
Tsimerman said the team decided to change the way it coached its “mathletes.”
Rather than use older professors removed from the math Olympiad scene, the Canadian Mathematical Society chose to use more recent graduates of the program, Tsimerman said. Some of the country’s heavy hitters in the Olympiad returned to coach.
Tsimerman is one of those heavy hitters, finishing first in the competition in 2004. Another coach, James Rickards, competed just two years ago and is now a student at Cambridge University, Tsimerman said.
Before the competition, the six-member team assembled at the Banff International Research Station for two weeks of intensive training. The team buckled down with a mock exam, lectures and lots of practice.
The International Mathematical Olympiad features six questions over two days. There are three questions on the first day for more than four hours of competition, then the same on the second day.
“The middle questions on each day were very difficult,” Tsimerman said.
“This year, even if you did solve them both, there wasn’t much time left over to solve the final questions on each day, so you saw much fewer people solving those because they didn’t have the time.”
But Song was in the zone, cruising on both days, finishing with an hour to spare on Day 1 and 30 minutes the next.
He kept celebrations to a minimum.
“I didn’t do too much — it was Thailand. We mostly just stayed in the hotel, talked to the other teams, played some games with them and went on some excursions.”
The champ will start his collegiate career at Princeton University next month. He said he hopes to focus on pure mathematics and “needs to get prepared for mathematical research.”
Tsimerman said Canadians should remember Song’s name.
“He is destined for greatness,” Tsimerman said. “But let’s not forget he’s already achieved greatness in his short career.”