As we began to practice, it dawned on us, our robot needed many adjustments. The track proved far more difficult than we imagined. Despite feeling intense fatigue from the trip, we got to work.
MONTERREY, Mexico ꟷ When my team and I reached the finals of the 2023 RoboRave World Championships to face off against China, we knew our rivals exhibited great strengths. With our goal nearly in our grasp, our bodies filled with energy. Winning the world robotics championship had been our biggest motivation for a year. We had already taken on other competitions, and I knew our team possessed all the necessary knowledge and skills. Yet, fear filled me throughout our preparations – worried about the outside obstacles we faced.
A student in our program Yonier Alcaraz said it well: we grappled with so many feelings in the middle of the competition. What if we advance but forget to consider some of the challenges? What if others improve and move past us? Will we crumble under the weight of representing Colombia in a different country, far from home and family? As teenagers, the team needed to bear those burdens while also eating and sleeping well. When we transformed our fear into motivation, we preserved and took home the title.
I believe technology remains one of the best tools for young people to excel in any profession. In 2019, I put this belief to the test and launched the Pacific Team Robotics Laboratory in Chocó, Colombia, where young people between the ages of 14 and 16 learn and compete in robotics.
When I made the decision to take us to the international championships, we first had to win the national qualifiers in Bogotá. When we succeeded there, I began writing letters to private individuals and government officials requesting sponsorship. I felt the pressure of needing to subsidize travel for the team. When no one responded, a sadness settled in that felt worse than an outright refusal.
Determined to persist, we relied on each other. The team came together in unity to raise the money we needed to get to Mexico. We held raffles, sold suckling pigs, and offered desserts made by the families of the students. Through our collective efforts, 14 members of the team gained the resources necessary to travel to another country to compete.
We considered what we were up against. The competition would consist of building a robot and making it move around a track. When it reaches the end, it must pick up 200 ping pong balls and take them back to the beginning. The winner completes the race in the shortest time possible. We needed to ensure our robot remained strong enough to carry the balls, but light enough to move fast. In addition, we needed stability for cornering, so we developed an algorithm based on aircraft navigation which proved to be a major strength in the competition.
When the day of the trip arrived, I worried incessantly that the airlines might cancel our flights from Quibdó to Bogotá to Mexico. The day before, I repeatedly checked the weather app. Given the circumstances, there was a high probability a cancellation could happen. I felt tortured by fear, but everything proceeded smoothly.
When we got to our destination in Monterrey, our minds cleared. We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the track. As we began to practice, it dawned on us, our robot needed many adjustments. The track proved far more difficult than we imagined. Despite feeling intense fatigue from the trip, we got to work. With limited access to good food, we picked some things up at the supermarket, and our energy dropped even more, but no one could sleep until we knew the robot was in the best possible condition for the competition the next day.
The next morning, we compared the RoboRave World Championships to the FIFA World Cup soccer finals. Two teams would face off against each other and the winner with the fastest time would move on to the next round. The losing team exits the competition. Full of nerves but 100 percent focused, we maintained high expectations.
We made it all the way to the final round to face off against China. By this time something changed. We competed not only with our minds, but with our whole hearts, concentrating completely on the final run. Team member Kleyder Valoyes never once doubted our robot and he inspired us. We were convinced we could win – fighting off the anxiety by squeezing our hands at every turn of the track. We laughed and suffered at the same time. As the robot rounded the final stretch, we had the lead but just as they prepared to announce the winner, we stumbled into a delay.
The Chinese team asked for a review because they believed we performed one tactic incorrectly. With each minute that passed, we felt anguish. Student Daniel Godoy told me, as the jury reviewed the moment in question, it felt like the worst and most stressful few minutes of the whole day.
When the jury completed their review, they moved forward to announce the winner. Time stopped. When the spoke the word Colombia an inexplicable sensation came over me. It was as if we were flying down a runway. We cried and some of our legs buckled. Henry Palacios said the joy could barely fit in his body.
We had to cut our celebration short because our flight for home was leaving that same day and we had just enough time to get to the airport. The day after our arrival home, the boys had academic commitments. We accepted our medals, took pictures, and rushed to airport.
Back in Colombia, we finally relaxed, celebrated, and let the feelings overflow out of us. The award is proof that when you focus on what you are truly capable of and put the work first – instead of focusing on your differences or difficulties – you can go far in life. Team Robotics del Pacifico continues to plan for the future, and I know we will achieve great things.
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