Meet Our Mathletes

Trevor Bernard, Zoe Herrick, Chris Komin, and Ellen Lutnick

Let the Games Begin

Campus News

Math students test their muscle on NBC’s ‘Spartan Challenge’

From left: Mathletes Trevor Bernard, Zoe Herrick, Kyle "Wooch" Graff, Ellen Lutnick and Chris Komin. Photo: Eli Joshua Adé/NBC)

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published June 9, 2017

“We're problem-solvers and go about obstacles in terms of efficiency rather than strength. We’re able to formulate and calculate quickly the best way to tackle Spartan obstacles.”
Chris Komin, UB senior and participant
“Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge”

Four UB students are competing on the upcoming season of “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge,” the hit NBC competition series that tests physical and mental limits with a mile-long obstacle course filled with mud, water and fire.

Their journey, however, which included months of training, lifting and running, did not begin in a gym, but rather a math class.

Dubbed the Mathletes, the team consists of four UB math students: Chris Komin, a senior majoring in math and film study; Zoe Herrick, a junior majoring in math and biomedical engineering; Trevor Bernard, a sophomore math major; and Ellen Lutnick, a junior who switched her major from math to exercise science.

The second season of “Spartan” premieres at 10 p.m. (EST) on Monday, June 12.

The students are competing with 24 teams from across the nation for the opportunity to win $250,000. Each team consists of five members: two men, two women and an elite Spartan athlete chosen by the show who serves as captain.

Their challenge: a grueling obstacle course inspired by Spartan Race that is designed to test determination, endurance and will.

The competition places an emphasis on teamwork, often requiring contestants to problem-solve instead of relying on athleticism. Here, says Komin, is where their math courses gave them an advantage.

The Mathletes — from left Kyle "Wooch" Graff, Trevor Bernard, Ellen Lutnick, Zoe Herrick and Chris Komin — goof around before the ultimate challenge begins.

“Having a background in math gives us the analytical mindset,” says Komin. “We're problem-solvers and go about obstacles in terms of efficiency rather than strength. We’re able to formulate and calculate quickly the best way to tackle Spartan obstacles.”

But textbooks and homework formed only a portion of their preparation. The students are also avid rock climbers and used the activity as one of the foundations of their training to sharpen their grip and upper body strength.

“Rock climbing is essentially physical problem-solving, which is super satisfying for people who like problem-solving and is basically the same general idea as the obstacles in the Spartan challenge,” says Lutnick.

With a workout schedule that resembled a part-time job, balancing classwork and tests made the semester an obstacle course of its own.

“That was the busiest semester of my undergrad, with 16 credits of difficult courses, six credits of research, my job at Chipotle and my volunteer position at the climbing gym,” says Herrick. “Cramming in time to train was pretty difficult, but I squeezed it in everywhere I could.”

The challenges placed on the students, both on the course and in the classroom, helped the group develop a bond that will last beyond graduation.

“We went in as friends, but we came out as family,” says Herrick. “You don’t go through an experience like that without doing some major bonding. There is so much trust involved in being a team and working through the obstacles.”

The Mathletes hope to return to the show for the third season.

NBC's Ultimate Team Challenge: Round 1

Campus News

Mathletes crush competition in NBC debut

The Mathletes (in gray) at the starting line during the June 26 episode of "Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge." Photo: 2017 NBCUniversal Media LLC

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published June 27, 2017

“I do think already that a lot of other competitors here have underestimated us. They see the team name, the Mathletes, and view us as a bunch of nerds.”
Trevor Bernard, member
Mathletes

The Mathletes conquered the competition in their debut on last night’s episode of NBC’s hit series “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge.”

The team of four UB undergraduate math majors won the first heat against the more experienced Grey Guard and Better Halves. The youngest team on the show, the Mathletes were billed as the underdogs.

However, for what they lack in years, the students make up for in teamwork, determination and the analytical approach to the course that helped them triumph over each obstacle.

“Our average age is 20; that’s not even old enough to buy a beer,” said 19-year-old sophomore Trevor Bernard. “I do think already that a lot of other competitors here have underestimated us. They see the team name, the Mathletes, and view us as a bunch of nerds.”

Senior Chris Komin said the team likes to “problem-solve rather than power through things. So through the Spartan race, I want to show people that a tall, lanky kid who doesn’t look like much can get out there and get muddy with the best of them.”

Mud wasn’t the only obstacle on the course. Teams had to endure a mile-long course that required them to heave themselves over water using a 450-pound tire, raise and then climb an 850-pound, 25-foot timber pole, roll a barrel up a 75-foot incline, and build a human ladder to ascend a slippery, tilted wall.

The Mathletes are introduced at the beginning of the competition on the June 26 episode of "Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge." Photo: 2017 NBCUniversal Media LLC

Led by team captain Kyle “Wooch” Graff, an elite Spartan athlete who has earned a reputation for racing in thongs — a tradition that was kept alive last night — the Mathletes maintained the lead throughout the entire course. The team shined in obstacles where other teams struggled, such as the Tire Swing, Timber Drag and Slip Wall.

Rounding out the Mathletes are juniors Zoe Herrick and Ellen Lutnick. The team of five placed first in the heat and advanced to the second round, where they will face stiffer competition against Kid Courage. The Better Halves also will compete in the second round.

The students are among 24 teams from around the nation vying for the opportunity to win $250,000.

But no matter how far they advance, the Mathletes are already champions at UB, in Western New York and in their hometowns. The team has been featured in The Buffalo News, WBFO, WGRZ and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Episodes of “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” air at 10 p.m. on Mondays on NBC.

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July 21, 2017: The Mathletes are closing in on $250,000.

Campus News

Mathletes advance to final night of ‘Spartan Challenge’

The Mathletes — from left Kyle "Wooch" Graff, Ellen Lutnick, Trevor Bernard, Zoe Herrick and Chris Komin — have advanced to the final night of competition. Photo: Courtesy of NBC

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published July 20, 2017

“The Mathletes proved in round one that they’re just as much brawn as they are brains.”
Kyle “Wooch” Graff, elite Spartan athlete and team leader
Mathletes

The Mathletes are closing in on $250,000.

The team of UB math students competing on NBC’s second season of “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” edged out the competition by six seconds in the second round of the series, earning a trip to the final night of competition.

The students competed against 24 teams from around the nation for the opportunity to win a quarter of a million dollars. Now, the Mathletes are among six teams left standing.

The two-hour season finale of “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” will air at 9 p.m. (EST) on Sunday.

The Mathletes consist of Chris Komin, a senior majoring in math and film study; Zoe Herrick, a junior majoring in math and biomedical engineering; Trevor Bernard, a sophomore math major; and Ellen Lutnick, a junior who switched her major from math to exercise science.

The team is led by Kyle “Wooch” Graff, an elite Spartan athlete who has earned a reputation for racing in thongs — a tradition that was kept alive on Monday night when each of the Mathletes donned blue thongs adorned with white stars.

The youngest team in the competition with an average age of 20, the Mathletes took their competition by surprise, easily winning in the first round despite being billed as the underdogs.

“They look unassuming. They don’t look like a typical Spartan,” says Graff. “But the Mathletes proved in round one that they’re just as much brawn as they are brains.”

Known for their analytical approach to the obstacle courses inspired by Spartan Race, the students view their education in advanced math at UB as an advantage.

“We’re problem-solvers and go about obstacles in terms of efficiency rather than strength. We’re able to formulate and calculate quickly the best way to tackle Spartan obstacles,” Komin says.

Their quick thinking in a race that was decided in less than 10 seconds helped them advance to the final night of the competition.

The Mathletes competed against the Ninjas and Saddle Up in a punishing, mile-long course that consisted of using a 450-pound tire to swing across a pool, piecing together 250-pound puzzle pieces to support and climb a 16-foot pole, crawling through a mud pit under barbed wire, and building a human ladder to ascend a slippery, tilted wall.

The students overcame a slow start and injury to Lutnick — who dislocated her shoulder while climbing the Slip Wall — to place second in their heat with a time that was fast enough to earn them a slot in the finale.

Lutnick, who balances her fierce competitiveness with a fondness for poetry, won’t allow the injury to slow her down. She delivered this prose to her competition: “They’re compelled to sprint marathons at the break-neck of dawn. We are your friends, your neighbors, your family; but at night, we slip back into warrior dreams.

“We rattle our shields and sharpen our spears in protest of a simpler time of discipline and loyalty. Listen for the battle cries in the distance. We are Spartans. And we’re coming for you.”

July 25, 2017: Mathletes find "trust involved in being a team and working through obstacles."

Campus News

Mathletes finish as a family after elimination in final night of ‘Spartan Challenge’

The Mathletes (center, in gray uniforms) form a human ladder to climb a slippery, tilted wall. Photo: NBC

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published July 25, 2017

“We went in as friends but we came out as family.”
Zoe Herrick, UB junior and member
Mathletes

The Mathletes’ heroic run on NBC’s “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” has come to an end.

The team of four UB math students fell short of winning the $250,000 prize after being eliminated from the competition during a semifinal round that was decided in the closing seconds.

Despite the loss, the Mathletes have plenty of reasons to hold their heads high. The youngest team in the competition with an average age of 20, the students were billed as the underdogs at the start of the show’s second season.

Their inexperience was hardly a disadvantage. The Mathletes took their competition by surprise with strong performances in the first two rounds of the Spartan Race-inspired series. On Sunday night, they were among the six remaining teams vying for the grand prize.

“No one thought that we’d make it to the semifinals, but yet, here we are,” said Trevor Bernard, a sophomore math major. “We have probably some of the best team chemistry in this entire competition.”

Bernard competed with UB classmates Chris Komin, a senior majoring in math and film study; Zoe Herrick, a junior majoring in math and biomedical engineering; and Ellen Lutnick, a junior who switched her major from math to exercise science. The team was led by elite Spartan athlete Kyle “Wooch” Graff.

The competition series emphasizes teamwork, often requiring contestants to work together to problem-solve instead of relying on individual strength and athleticism.

“We went in as friends but we came out as family,” said Herrick. “You don’t go through an experience like that without doing some major bonding. There is so much trust involved in being a team and working through the obstacles.”

The team’s bond was tested before the semifinals after Lutnick dislocated her shoulder during the second round of the series. Doctors cleared Lutnick to compete on race night, but participating at less than full strength could risk placing her team at a disadvantage.

Lutnick offered to sit the round out, allowing the Mathletes to substitute in another player. Her teammates refused.

“We weren’t going to break up the family. Even if she wasn’t 100 percent, for better or for worse, we finish as a team,” Herrick said.

The semifinal round presented the most grueling course yet. The one-mile course increased the number of obstacles to 10. Teams were tasked to raise and then climb an 850-pound timber pole, roll a 2,000-pound barrel up a hill, throw spears at targets and build a human ladder to ascend a slippery, tilted wall.

They also were presented with a new obstacle: carrying a 300-pound pendulum through a 200-foot maze.

Donning their signature thongs, the Mathletes raced in the first heat against Heart of Texas and Stunt Junkies.

Early mistakes by the Mathletes and Stunt Junkies allowed Heart of Texas to hold a firm lead. By the final obstacle, the slip wall, the Stunt Junkies and Mathletes were neck and neck.

Both teams overcame the wall at the same time, but the Stunt Junkies edged the Mathletes in the final run toward the finish line by a few seconds.

After crossing the finish line, the Mathletes locked arms for one final huddle.

During the embrace, Herrick told her team, the UB community and the millions of people watching around the nation: “We didn’t beat them, but we showed them exactly who we are.”

Selected Links and Media Coverage at start of "Spartan Challenge"

Our Mathletes have been featured in The Buffalo News, WBFO, WGRZ and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, among other media venues.