Howard Grotts is used to juggling complex equations. But to reach the Olympics, the only number that mattered was one.
One spot. That’s all the United States had for it’s men’s mountain biking team for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. So the 23-year-old had to prove he was the best mountain biker in the country, and he did by winning back-to-back cross-country mountain bike national titles and a short-track national championship. He’s won nearly every race he’s entered in the U.S. the last 12 months and was regularly the top American on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup circuit in Europe.
But Grotts is equally talented in another, drastically different field: mathematics.
“Lots of people have a vocation and an avocation,” said Dr. Veronika Furst, an associate professor of mathematics at Fort Lewis College who was Grotts’ advisor. “While Howard was a student, he was so dedicated to both cycling and academics that you couldn’t tell which one was the vocation and which one was the avocation. That’s special.”
Grotts found a passion for math around the same time he began racing bikes at a highly-competitive level. He got into racing when he was 13 and was winning junior national titles by the time he was 15.
Tara Haller was one of Grotts’ high school match teachers at Durango High School until he graduated in 2010.
“She made math a really enjoyable subject and helped push me a little further than I might have done otherwise,” Grotts said of Haller.
Haller said Grotts had a curious mind and was very sharp at understanding high-level mathematics.
“He’s intrinsically motivated both in class and as an athlete,” she said.
Grotts studied at Colorado School of Mines as a freshman before transferring to Fort Lewis College, where he graduated with honors in 2014. He excelled at Mines, but the rigorous academic standards made finding time to properly train on his bike strenuous. In Durango and at Fort Lewis, Grotts would have more time to focus on bike while still earning a degree.
While winning national championships for the Skyhawks’ cycling team and competing in Europe, Grotts was still a standout student.
“He’s incredibly humble,” Furst said. “And if he needed to miss a class for some huge event like the world championships he would just kind of ask if it was OK if he missed a few days without even really mentioning he was taking part in a giant event. If you were just a professor who didn’t follow cycling, you would have missed his athletic accomplishments, because he didn’t brag or bring them up.”
But, in an unusual twist, Grotts doesn’t combine his love of numbers and solving equations into his mountain biking. He doesn’t use a power meter or count calories, and he doesn’t look at trails as problems that need to be solved in a mathematical sense.
“I would say math for me is almost about being more balanced,” he said. “Biking keeps you less logical and you’re just out there to enjoy it. It’s not a numbers game for me.”
Grotts, 23, isn’t sure how long he wants to continue racing bikes, and his parents Don Grotts and Debbie Williams see a future for their son teaching math.
No matter what arena Grotts takes his talents to after he races in Rio on Aug. 21, those who have watched him work on the trails and in the classroom know he is sure to stand out in whatever field he puts his mind to next.
“The best way to describe him from a mathematician’s point of view is that he is a statistical outlier,” Furst said. “He is both athletically and academically so far above the mean. It’s rare to come across people like him.”