John Overdeck would have been a normal kid if it wasn't for the numbers. He just liked numbers. When he was 2 years old, he liked to count to 200 and divide by seven. When he was 4 years old, he knew how many miles away Jupiter was and how many days were in each of Jupiter's years.
Now Overdeck is 16, and he came home to Columbia tonight from Poland with a big crystal vase that represents a silver medal victory in the International Mathematics Olympiad.
Overdeck was one of six members of a U.S. team that won a first-place tie with the Soviet Union last week in the annual mathematics competition for high school students. The team won three gold medals and three silver ones.
Overdeck underwent an intensive one-month training session before the Olympiad, as he had in two previous attempts to make the U.S. math team.
But other than these annual sessions, he said, he doesn't talk about math much of the time.
He took all the required math courses at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School by the time he finished 10th grade, and then he turned his attention to other subjects.
Overdeck said he is concentrating on improving his writing, and has done a lot of debating with the school's debating team. "And I certainly don't spend my Friday and Saturday nights doing anything intellectually productive," he said.
Although he is someone known among his school friends as a mathematician, he said, the label of "nerd" is something "I'm always forced to escape. I don't think of myself as one, and I don't think my friends do."
Overdeck's father, also named John, is a mathematician for the Department of Defense. His mother, Betsy Overdeck, who manages a computer firm in Silver Spring, has a doctorate in mathematics. His father said he encouraged and enjoyed his son's interest in numbers and other mathematical things, but didn't try to force it on him. He said it seemed to come naturally to the boy.
"By the time he was 2 he could read and count very well," the senior Overdeck said, attributing much of that knowledge to the television program "Sesame Street." "We'd read to him in bed, and sometimes he wouldn't want to read. He wanted to count instead. He'd never get tired of that. For him, numbers were always the most exciting thing."
The younger Overdeck was attracted to all kinds of numbers, his father said, whether they were baseball statistics, stock market quotations or mileage calculations. He was also good at understanding maps, his father said, and always knew the quickest way to go anywhere.
"You'd have this kid in the car -- a 4-year-old -- and you are asking his advice. And you scratch your head and say: 'I'm asking a 4-year-old?' "
Although he plans to study math at Stanford University, where he is to begin this fall, Overdeck says he has little intention of becoming a professional mathematician. "I'm certainly not setting out to become a mathematics professor," he said.
"I don't see that as fulfilling, sitting there writing papers all your life. But mathematics applies to all branches of science, computers and economics . . . . I like math, but I want to make it do something."
Alicia Bennett, a spokeswoman for the Mathematics Association of America, which sponsors the U.S. team, said Overdeck is typical of many of this country's mathematical stars, because he is interested in what mathematics can be made to do, rather than pure mathematics. Studies of past high school math champions have shown that most of them end up in business or the computer field. "These kids are not on a one way street towards a university career in mathematics, or in teaching," she said.