UW–Madison team wins silver at International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals

The UW–Madison International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) team was awarded a silver medal at the world finals this year, and holds the North American record of advancing to 21 world finals competitions in a row. The UW–Madison team has competed more consecutive years than any other North American team, and this year for the first time they won a silver medal. Only one North American team did better: MIT. They solved one more problem, placed second, and earned a gold medal. See the scoreboard for more details.

ICPC is considered to be the oldest, largest, and most prestigious programming competition in the world. Over 300,000 students from 3,000 universities around the world participated last year. Only the top 15 teams from the North America Championship move on to world finals. 

UW–Madison’s team members, Nitit Jongsawatsataporn, Mingrui Liu, and Ziyi Zhang, showed considerable dedication and persistence. The world finals were supposed to take place in 2022, but the contest was delayed till November 2023 due to the Covid pandemic. It was then postponed again and relocated from Sharm El Sheikh to Luxor, both in Egypt, due to the Israel/Palestine conflict. 

During that time, two team members graduated and moved elsewhere, and one team member experienced visa issues that were only resolved two weeks before the contest. “In spite of these challenges, they kept practicing and managed to maintain their technical prowess and ability for teamwork,” said Dieter van Melkebeek, UW–Madison Computer Sciences professor and ICPC team coach.

UWMadison team at ICPC 2023 World Finals. Photo by Oliver Fischer.

Mingrui describes the tense and exciting atmosphere during the competition and the team’s need to pivot strategies during the five-hour competition. Based on analysis of world finals teams, the UW–Madison team thought they were positioned to earn a bronze medal. But due to their shift in strategy, they were able to complete one final problem in the last eight minutes of the competition. “As a result, we won a silver medal, winning over lots of teams that we would never think we would beat,” said Mingrui. Ziyi added,We didn’t know until the announcement of the results that this was the decisive problem, so our success was a delightful surprise.”

Van Melkebeek noted, “A medal in the world finals is something we’ve been aspiring to for many years. The competition at the international level is extremely fierce.” Many teams’ student participants are from outside the US and receive their undergraduate and ICPC training there, even on North American teams. Van Melkebeek is particularly proud that “two of the students on our team, Nitit and Ziyi, received their entire undergraduate education here and developed their ICPC prowess up to that level through our training program.” Mingrui completed his undergraduate studies in China, where he had competed with ICPC, and came to UW–Madison as a graduate student, where he was “pleasantly surprised by the vibrant ICPC community.”

All three team members describe the world finals as a highlight of their lifetimes, and they were able to take some time to explore Luxor with the team after the contest, culminating in a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. The award ceremony took place in front of the Temple of Hatshepsut, which is more than 3,500 years old, and included dignitaries such as the Egyptian Minister of Communications and Information Technology. Nitit said, “It was an honor for me to stand with them on the stage, receiving the first medal in the University of Wisconsin–Madison history!”

UWMadison ICPC team is awarded the silver medal at the 2023 World Finals in Luxor, Egypt in front of the 3500-year-old Temple of Hatshepsut. In addition to the UW-Madison team, the Egyptian Minister of Communications and Information Technology is pictured. Photo by Bob Smith.

The UW–Madison team is poised to continue their successes. Earlier this year they set another record, taking four out of the top five slots in the regional competition. Five teams can advance to the North American championship, but only one team per university, so the top team will compete at the end of May in Orlando, Florida for a world finals slot. The next world finals will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan in September 2024, which should catch up the competitions, which fell behind during the Covid pandemic. 

In addition to their programming prowess, the team is also committed to helping future cohorts, “a culture that I tried to instill over the years,” said van Melkebeek. Ziyi helped train the UW–Madison teams when he took a leap year back home in China during the Covid pandemic; Nitit ran the physical organizational meeting this year while van Melkebeek was on sabbatical abroad; and Mingrui accompanied the team to the North American Championship in van Melkebeek’s absence. 

Coach Dieter van Melkebeek was awarded a Lifetime Coach Award at the ceremony in Luxor for 20 years of bringing teams to the world finals. Although he has been asked to accept leadership positions at the ICPC, van Melkebeek does not want to give up coaching at UW–Madison, saying, “I would miss the prerogative, excitement, and satisfaction of working with such super-motivated and interested students!” His commitment extended to continuing to coach while on sabbatical, when faculty generally pause all departmental activities. His dedication shows in the consistently strong teams he has trained through the levels of ICPC competition over the last two decades and his staunch advocacy for team members, including helping them obtain visas. His students are clearly inspired by his leadership: Ziyi is now a graduate student at University of Chicago and is training the ICPC team there, building on his experience under van Melkebeek’s mentorship. 

The UW–Madison team is appreciative of all the support they’ve received from sponsors. In particular they’d like to thank Epic, the Madison-area based healthcare software company responsible for the creation of MyChart, for many years of running a regional site for the competition. “This allows us to participate with many more teams at the regional level than we could before,” said van Melkebeek.

Congratulations to Nitit, Mingrui, and Ziyi, and congratulations and deep gratitude to Dieter van Melkebeek!