University of Kentucky freshman Lucas Etter’s intellect was obvious from an early age—3, to be exact. His parents first noticed his exceptional mind unexpectedly on a beach vacation.
“We were walking down the beach,” said Dana Etter, Lucas’ mother. “He looked up at the houses on the beach and looked up at me and said, ‘Look mom, those houses are very symmetrical.’ So it was telling, that you know, we have something special here.”
Lucas Etter has always been attracted to spatial and geometric puzzles. So when he first picked up a Rubik’s cube at age 8, he was instantly hooked by the challenge.
“I think it was relatively easy for me to solve the cube itself, so I wanted to push myself,” Etter said. “I saw the world record video on YouTube and that’s what inspired me.”
Etter filmed a fake world record attempt on his fake YouTube not long after he began competing, to help him visualize breaking the record. He doesn’t want to sound arrogant, he said, but he always thought he could break it.
In 2015, at age 14, his visualization paid off. After a long, tiring day of competition, Etter solved the standard 3x3x3 cube in just 4.90 seconds, becoming the first person to ever break the five second mark.
“I couldn’t believe it, really,” Etter said. “I jumped up, but I don’t even consciously remember doing that. The only image I see is myself slamming down and looking at the timer. The rest was pure excitement.”
Etter has now broken four world records and won four U.S. national titles in speed-cubing.
It took hours upon hours of dedicated practice for Etter to achieve those accolades. He said that he used to practice three to four hours a day after school, dividing his time between repetitively solving computer-generated “scrambles” and learning algorithms. Etter said he has probably learned thousands of algorithms at this point.
But he never grew tired of it.
“When you’re improving really quickly, you don’t get bored that easily,” Etter said. “You can see your success.”
His sub-five second world record solve was just the beginning of Etter’s meteoric rise to speed-cubing stardom. News outlets began calling him for interviews during school, fellow speed-cubers sought him out for advice and late-night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show made jokes about his world record.
“In general, that whole sequence was pretty overwhelming,” Etter said.
Etter has travelled across the United States for competitions, sponsored by MoYu, a Chinese cube manufacturer, and the Cubicle, an American-based retailer. He has competed on the international stage in Paris and Australia, where he met one of his inspirations and former 3x3x3 world record holder, Feliks Zemdegs.
Lucas said that Zemdegs’ YouTube videos and eventual online friendship was an integral motivator for him during his first five years of speed-cubing.
“Lucas is universally loved amongst the cubing community for his gentle nature,” Zemdegs said. “I’m glad I was able to play a small part in his cubing journey.”
Now Etter has become one of the stars that he used to emulate. In the speed-cubing world, he’s a household name. But according to his friend Javier Gonzalez-Napoleoni, another speed-cuber at UK, he just sees himself as another student on campus.
“He knows he’s fast, but he’s not bragging about it,” Gonzalez-Napoleoni said. “He’s a national champ, he’s got the first sub-five, and he’s still the same Lucas.”
Etter said his experiences travelling and meeting other top speed-cubers over the past few years has been humbling and insightful. It’s taught him how to thrive in high-pressure situations as well as build a network of international friends.
“A typical nine-year-old probably isn’t going to try to solve the cube as fast as possible or study algorithms or recite 100 digits of pi—those were his hobbies—and it’s hard to find that in a very regional area,” Dana Etter said. “Expanding out, he’s found his people and I think that’s helped him grow socially and maturely.”
But in early 2018, adversity hit. Etter was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) in his hands and feet. His fingers had been swelling during practice for over a year, but Etter hadn’t been ready to stop. After the official diagnosis, he decided to take a year off of speed-cubing competition.
Gonzalez-Napoleoni, who also has JRA, said the entire speed-cubing community was sad to see Etters take a leave of absence.
“With cubing, it’s really a feel-type sport,” Gonzalez-Napoleoni said. “With (Etter), he’s looking so far ahead into his solve that he knows what moves he wants to do, but now he’s being limited by the arthritis and not being able to turn as fast. That’s really frustrating.”
During his year off, Etter still went to competitions to maintain his friendships within the speed-cubing community. But many worried whether Etter would return to the sport the same powerhouse he left it. They had no need to worry. During his first competitions back, Etter was already podiuming.
“He came back with a vengeance,” Dana Etter said.
However, after that year break, Etter said his interest in speed-cubing has waned. He is now more focused on improving the community and keeping in touch with his speed-cubing friends than practicing for hours on end.
Etter hosted a competition in Lexington last summer and plans to continue that in the future. He also uses his YouTube to share advice and be a role model for other aspiring speed-cubers.
“It’s a way for me to give back to the community,” Etter said. “Everyone helped me when I was younger and now I’m helping other people achieve bigger things.”
Now, as a UK freshman, Etter is applying his spatial intelligence to a mathematics major. He plans to attend graduate school for Data Science, but after that, he’s not certain where life will take him.
Although his priorities are shifting, Etter isn’t bowing out yet. He plans to travel to Canada and possibly Amsterdam next summer for speed-cubing competitions, continuing his JRA comeback.
“I know that he’s probably going to be breaking more records in the future,” Gonzalez-Napoleoni said. “I don’t see anything stopping him.”