My story at the 2016 VEX World Championship

After we won the Asian-Pacific Championship, I continued to update my robot, preparing for the world championship. I added some essential features to the program, including a menu system, and an auto-calibrate mode that adjusts the parameters in the runtime. I also amended the ball collecting mechanism, so that the robot could collect and shoot the balls much more quickly. The new system is more accurate and rapid – by the time we left for the Worlds, the robot is capable of shooting four balls in 1second, each one of them dropping into the basket with 100% accuracy.

Our school sent three teams, one of which was from the International Department. I was the captain of the teams. We set off on a chill, bright Tuesday morning with robots in giant boxes. After 12 hours of flight, we landed at Chicago O’Hare airport and took a 6-hour bus ride to Louisville, where our competition would be hosted. It was a long journey, so I was wondering why we didn’t just fly directly to Louisville, as our hotel was right next to the airport. My complaint turned into approbation shortly afterward when I saw the scenery outside the window. Unlike the gray, oppressive sky in China, it was blue and clear in the US. Exquisite farmer houses stood on the roadside, an immense number of wind turbines dotted the background.

When we finally got to the hotel, another thing impressed me – the door card was actually an exclusive souvenir with VEX Worlds written on it.

The next morning when we step into the Kentucky Expedition Center, we found the competition more like a party, or a team talent showcase. There I saw people made a lot of things not for the game but fun. For us, though, anytime in the robotics lab was precious, so I spent all of that to improve my system.

A few hours later we went to the freedom hall, where the opening ceremony would be held. That is the center of the party – people sit on their seats, cheering and applauding, bouncing giant balls up and down on the stand. They intentionally created a lot of haze in the hall. I do understand that it was to create a Tyndall effect so that the light beams would be visible in the air, but what I was thinking at that time was:’Chinese run from haze while Americans run for haze. How ironic it is!’

Teams from different countries walked the stage one by one, waving their national flags. Surprisingly, there’s even a Syrian team, financed by an international charity institute. When the host introduced them, everyone in the hall stood up and applauded for them. Then started the match.

It turned out that our robot’s performance was much better than I expected. What concerned me, though, was the arrangement within our team. Only three members out of five would be allowed to stand beside the field during the match; other people would need to seat on the bleachers, outside the restricted zone and away from the game. Why it matters? Well, since the match was significant, there will be TV broadcast during the game. Those who stand within the restricted zone will have a much higher odd of being on the TV. There’s no arguing that the driver, John, should be in, but the selection of the other two people became a problem. According to my plan, it should be myself and another international department guy, Anthony, who speaks fluent English. I wished him in because I valued the significance of excellent communication, which is the prerequisite of a successful game. I need to be in because I knew the robot best so that I could configure the system before the match, and fix the problem if there’s any.

However, driver John didn’t approve the plan. He insisted that he want Tim, a friend of him back in the primary school. I didn’t even see him very much before our departure. How he got into our team, I didn’t know: it’s just another teachers’ arrangement. What I do know is that he wasn’t even capable of using a screwdriver.

“No way.” I protested.

“Tim was my primary school partner. We work best together.” John argued.

It was totally bullshit: Tim didn’t even come to the lab once a month, so how could he practice for cooperation with John? And as far as I know, they rarely contact each other ever since their graduation from primary school. I could only assume they or their parents were having some secret deals. I was about to say “I’m the captain,” but I suddenly realized that it was a horrible time for conflicts. Thinking that I could configure the robot before matches begin, I said:”Okay, it’s up to you this time, but Anthony, the international department guy, must be in.” I was confident about the quality of the robot since I’ve checked every component of it. And even if it did stop working during the game, I could still rush into the field, switching someone down temporarily. As for Tim, he was smart enough to load balls and carry the robot. I completely forgot the broadcast thing at that moment.

Then started the competition. I configured the robot, calibrated the sensors, handed it to my teammates, and then stand on the bleachers to gesture them what to do. We went for the alliances before each match, talking about technical issues and strategies. This job was mainly done by Anthony because back at the time my English was far from fluent. I did meet tons of friendly guys who are willing to listen to my crappy English, though. We also played against the Syrian team, who prayed in their pit before matches. How devout they are!

We were so excellent that no team could beat us in the first nine qualifying matches, but there was one incredibly strong team playing against us in the last game. Then I came up with the idea that could save us from potential failure: Anthony and I persuaded them to be our alliance in the finals. Therefore, no matter who wins the game, the other one would also be in the finals. They ended up sandbagging because if my team won, we could rank first in our subdivision and make the alliance selection before anyone else does.

The next day, I woke up early in the morning, knowing that this is the day when the finals would be held. Stepping outside the hotel, I saw an amazingly magnificent scenery: the dawn cloud was red, yellow and blue; I could see a giant fireball rising on the horizon. The sky was clear with clouds as white as pearls. Light frost covered the trees, making them look fantastic. You may think this is common, but I couldn’t see such common things back in China; the sky was always grayish and hazy, and high-rising skyscrapers obscured the horizon. A good omen, I said to myself.

The finals were much more intense the qualifying matches. Games followed games with no rests in-between. Soon our motors started to lose power because of the heat. Fortunately, we got help again: another Chinese team got beaten, so they want us to revenge. They gave us a bucket of dry ice, using which we could cool down the motors efficiently.

We went through Quarters, Semifinals with no match lost. Then we went to the finals, winning the first and second game with ease. Or it was just I thought we won the second one. After the match ended, we could see our balls significantly more than the opponents’, and both of the alliances did the Elevation, a decisive scoring action at the end of the game that earns us 50 points. The operation must be performed inside the scoring zone, a triangle at the corner of the field. The referee noticed that we had a tiny little bit of the robot stretched out of the zone in the midair. Maybe he was racist, or maybe he thought the fact that we didn’t lose a single match was abnormal. But for whatever reason, he decided to make it “an invalid action.”

“The rules clearly state that the robot must be in the scoring zone.” Said the referee indifferently.

“But we are! It’s just a ribbon!”  exclaimed Anthony angrily. “The purpose of the rule is to designate the position of the robot at the end of the match, not to offer you a weak excuse to subtract our score!”

“WhydonUcheouthatotheopponts’? Iswaretheirnobetter.” A member of our Canadian alliance team shouted so quickly that I could hardly recognize.

Nothing could be changed, though. But it doesn’t matter because we still have the third match. We screwed our opponents. They had fewer balls than us, and their elevation failed dramatically: the robot tipped over at the last second of the game. We even scored after the Elevation! It was such a surprise that all of the spectators cheer for us. It wasn’t something good for the match, though. The elevation scoring zone was far away from the goal, so shooting there would have a much smaller odd of scoring. Still, we did it, not for scoring, but to show how cool we are, so cool that we could win the game without referee’s help.

Perhaps impressed by our coolness, a team who allied with us earlier gave us a nice shirt of their team and intended to take a photo with us. I kept that shirt in my closet even today.

Then we went into the Freedom Hall for the Round Robin. Five champions of each subdivision would compete against each other one by one for the qualification of the high school finals. We got loads of messages from teams that was formally our alliance, most of which wishing us good luck. Nothing noteworthy, but I do remember the high atmosphere in the hall. Everybody worked an entire year on their robot, and now they want to see what the best ones look like. We won three out of four games, ranking first among five alliances. Then we won the high school finals, 2-1. The game was much intenser than the subdivision finals: For more than once, we nearly lose the entire game. Fortunately, we made it to the end.

I still remember the excitement when I found my antagonist failed their Elevation in the very final match: some mechanical errors made their mechanism malfunction. We stared at their crashed robots, mouth wide open, knowing that we just won the game – they can’t beat us with 50 points short. The commentator said: “So the red alliance… they just know that they win the world championship… For the blue, consistency and repeatability is everything in engineering…” Then a huge firework exploded just beside my feet. I was a little bit surprised by the sound, but I didn’t care. Then we rushed to the stage for the cup, the medal, and the large certificate. A fun fact: we lose the certificate somewhere out of excitement, perhaps on the bus, or in a restaurant, so the certificate we had right now was actually a fake one, printed by ourselves. We did keep our cup and medals safe and sound; maybe we just didn’t value the enormous piece of paper that much.

(I wasn’t in this photo because I was 1 meter behind them in the shadow)

Now thinking retrospectively, I still figure it the most inspiring experience of my lifetime. I’ve never worked with so many intelligent people before, and I think it’s a glory to play against the essence of them.It is this time that made me realized the engineering doesn’t have to be nerdy; It could be cool sometimes. And it is also this experience that intrigued me to think about the option of going to the US for college. Is there anything better than working with the smartest and coolest people in the world?

For those who want to know about the other two teams: one of them lose four matches in the subdivision qualifying, so they didn’t get into finals. The other one, the one from the international department, was eliminated in the division finals. It’s somewhat reasonable because the team playing against them was really strong. When they played against us in the high school finals, we almost got kicked off. If they were in some other division, perhaps they could get into Round Robin as well.

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