A Historic Leap for UCL: University Challenge Team Eyes Victory After 61 Years

The University Challenge finalists sitting on UCL letters on Campus.
The University Challenge finalists sitting on UCL letters on Campus.
A team of four remarkable individuals stand on the cusp of rewriting the annals of one of the most prestigious academic competitions in the UK.

At the heart of this historic achievement is a tight knit team of four individuals: Tayana Sawh (captain), James Hall, Ali Izzatdust, and Jacob Finlay. Each of them brings a unique set of skills, knowledge, and personality to the fore, united by a shared goal.

"We said to each other from the beginning, this is about having fun more than anything else, and, amazingly, we’re on the telly doing this together. So, if we don’t win, we’ve already won just by getting here," says Finlay.

"Fingers on buzzers..."

University Challenge, a bastion of intellectual quiz competition among British universities, has been a televised tradition since 1962. It invites students across the UK to demonstrate their vast knowledge of diverse subjects. This year, our team has impressively sailed through the competition’s demanding rounds.

Previously, the UCL team reached the prestigious finals only twice, in 2005 and 2013, each time leaving without the coveted trophy. This year, the team earned a spot in the final via the shortest route possible, boasting an average game score of 195 points.

The excitement this year is tangible, with a strong belief that UCL can convert past near-misses into a triumphant victory.

"It’s all’about the synergy!"

During the adrenaline-fueled semi-final match against Trinity, Cambridge, UCL’s team faced a challenging start, trailing by -10 to 95 at halftime. They struggled with questions on topics ranging from mathematical symbols and Chinese cities to theories of time and Spanish poets.

In the face of this difficulty, team captain Sawh knew she had to rally the team: "We had to bring everyone back together. I was like, ’We can do this. We can come back. Don’t let them break our spirit.’ That was all communicated telepathically, of course."

This unspoken communication paid off, as the team experienced a pivotal shift, ultimately securing a victory with a score of 165 points, holding a 15-point advantage over their competitors by the game’s conclusion.

"The stress carried us through...it fuels you in a weird way," mentions Hall, describing this semi-final as one of the hardest challenges to overcome during their run on the show.

Host Amol Rajan even described UCL’s performance as the "comeback of the series" and "one of the most impressive performances ever seen on the show." The team’s remarkable synergy and unspoken bond have been pivotal in their journey to the final. This deep connection and mutual trust have proven to be their greatest strengths.

"You can see some of it on TV, but you don’t get to see how close you get with each other. It’s the trust in your team that is one of the most important things. You could be just sitting there thinking I have to get this, and I have to get this, and I haven’t been getting any of it. If you know your teammates can do it, then it’s not as stressful," Izzatdust adds, emphasising the importance of team trust and camaraderie.

UCL’s team strategy diverges from the norm by not assigning specific subjects exclusively to individual members. While questions on classics often go to Izzatdust and bird-related queries to Hall, the team excels in identifying each other’s strengths and deciding when to trust a teammate’s expertise.

"When you watch us, especially during our discussions, you’ll notice our unique dynamic. Often, if Ali speaks up, it’s because he’s confident in his answer, and we’ll all let Tayana take heed, understanding the strength of our team lies in recognising when to listen and when to contribute. Sometimes, we’re all guessing, acknowledging that no one of us has all the answers. Our approach isn’t about ego; it’s about collaboration," explains Finlay.

A Stoic Leader

Their composed presence on screen is largely attributed to their unflappable captain.

"Being next to Tayana boosts my spirit. It’s not always about outright saying, ’Yes, we can do this, let’s go.’ It’s more about the comforting presence she provides. There aren’t specific hand gestures or anything, but she brings a sense of calm that balances out my energy and brings me back down to Earth," says Izzatdust.

"It’s quite easy to dwell on the questions we missed, but we have to keep pushing forward," Sawh explains.
To discover more about the team members and their journey through the demanding selection process to represent UCL, delve into their introductory article from last year, featured in UCL News.

Fuelling Success with Curiosity

In preparation for the challenge, the team gathered weekly to sharpen their minds with the most recent quiz materials. They utilized resources like Sporkle, and Wikipedia, where team members enjoy exploring extensive trails of information.

"Joking around is a big part of our team dynamic," Hall mentions, highlighting the relaxed and humorous atmosphere that characterises the group. Their laid-back attitude seems to play a big role in their success, with each member fully immersing themselves in their love for learning. They’re simply doing what they already love to do.

"University Challenge fundamentally rewards curiosity," Finlay remarks. "It’s a show that celebrates learning, the people who fall down Wikipedia rabbit holes or are eager to discover things they don’t know. The competition favours this innate curiosity over merely having a vast store of knowledge."

"I think what sets you apart isn’t necessarily how much you know, it’s how much you love knowing what you know," adds Izzatdust.

The next generation

In the wake of their exciting success, these four quizzing experts are already contemplating the legacy they aim to establish at UCL.

"We are the biggest uni in the UK without a quiz society, so we decided to start one here at UCL, set to start accepting members next year," remarks Sawh.

Encouraging prospective team members, Izzatdust emphasises "Don’t overthink what you don’t know, because the biggest thing is realising how much you do know."

Adding to the encouragement, Finlay advises, "Also, don’t worry about what anyone else knows. Ultimately, there’s always something you know that nobody else does."

Hall chimes in with an enthusiastic, "Go for it! You’ve got nothing to lose. It’s great fun. Worst case scenario, you do a quiz and it’s a good laugh. Best case scenario, you end up on the University Challenge. It’s fun the whole way through."

Izzatdust concludes by saying, "We don’t know as much as you might think. We just happen to know things that happen to get asked about on a television program."

The team also recommends accumulating a collection of podcasts and Wikipedia articles and attending pub quizzes as part of the preparation for try-outs.

A London Battle Royale

As the finals draw near, the UCL community gears up to throw its full support behind the University Challenge team, ready to cheer them on in this historic showdown.

"Give us a shout-out if you’re tuning in; we love hearing from you!" urges Finlay.

Echoing this sentiment, team captain Sawh exclaims, "Our community’s support means everything to us. It’s incredibly motivating to know that we have the backing of our peers!"

Don’t miss the electrifying London Showdown as UCL faces Imperial on Monday, April 8th, at 8:30pm.
To heighten the excitement, the Institute Bar will host a watch party starting at 8:30pm, inviting all members of the UCL community to join in and rally behind the team during this monumental final match.
When asked how to show support, Hall jokes, "Buy us drinks!"

Well, after this incredible journey, they’ve certainly earned a toast or two!

About the author, Caroline Coyer

As a second-year student in the Creative Documentary MFA at UCL, my six-year journey in multimedia journalism reflects my passion for activism and social justice. Since 2021, my work has centered around reporting on the complexities of America’s criminal justice system, consistently collaborating with people and families impacted by its policies.

While at UCL, I developed a profound interest in exploring the intersection of art, activism, and public health, documenting these critical intersections with a nuanced and insightful lens. Whether examining the emergence of VR in our classrooms, music as a form of physical therapy, the evolving dynamics between students and Artificial Intelligence, or profiling UCL’s distinguished alum artists, my focus remains on amplifying the voices that too often go unheard. Using everything from the written word and photography to films, podcasts, and the buzz of social media, I strive to bring clarity and depth to each narrative I am entrusted to tell.
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