America's best young math minds compete in Rio

PITTSBURGH -- The International Mathematical Olympiad was held this week in Brazil, and Team USA finished in fourth place out of 110 countries.

CBS News spoke to the teens when they were on the road to Rio. 

The man in front of the class is no ordinary math teacher and the kids in the chairs are no ordinary students. They are the U.S. team for the International Mathematical Olympiad -- the best high school math minds in the country.

And Po-Shen Loh is their coach.

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The U.S. team ahead of the International Mathematical Olympiad in Rio.

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"One can think of this as having the same role, and inspiring people to do their very best in mathematics as the Olympic athletic competitions have for sports," Po said. 

The son of immigrants from Singapore, Po was on the team in 1999. But when he took over as coach three years ago, the United States hadn't won in 20 years. 

No surprise: When ranking students from 71 countries, the U.S. tests in the bottom half.  

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Po Shen Loh is the coach of the U.S. team at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

CBS News

But at training camp at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Po has his mathletes build strong bonds, out of the classroom as well as inside. Seventeen-year-old Zach Chroman from San Francisco, who is making his debut on the U.S. team, says it's working.

"The team does a great job in supporting each other in the sense that no one is pressured to get a certain score or they feel like they've failed. We all just want to do our best," Zach said. 

Po was straightforward about his low-stress approach when he interviewed for the top job.

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The U.S. team of the International Mathematical Olympiad prepares at a training camp at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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"What I said is that if you put me in as coach, we're gonna do much worse than we ever did," Po said.

But he was wrong. The drought has ended. The U.S. has placed first each of the last two years.  

"If you just constantly challenge and enjoy the love of doing better today than you did yesterday, then you will be on an onward march towards success," Po said. 

An important lesson for world-class math students -- and the rest of us as well.  

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.