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Poolside Math

Ono confers with Weyant.jpg
Professor Ken Ono confers with Olympic medal-winner Emma Weyant about how to get faster.

Swimming involves repetitive motion -- with each kick, each stroke, each turn adding up to an athlete’s final time in a race. University of Virginia Coach Todd DeSorbo says a fraction of a second can mean the difference between going to the Olympics and going home.

“To make the U.S. Olympic team you have to be first or second in Olympic trials," he explains. "At the Olympic trials last year, the 200 IM, Alex Walsh won it.  She was 2/100ths of a second ahead of Kate Douglas.  Third place was 2/100ths of a second behind her.”

To help swimmers get incrementally faster, DeSorbo turned to a surprising source -- the chair of UVA’s math department, an international expert on number theory, a former tri-athlete and the father of a collegiate swimmer. Ken Ono was eager to convert the abstractions of math to medals and trophies, so he started experimenting at the pool -- sticking small sensors to athletes’ backs to see when they speed up and when they slow down.

He also put cameras in the water to record each swim and compare points of acceleration or slowing with specific motions.

“Things such as the depth of your dive, the angle at which you push off a wall, the distance between your feet as you set up your push -- everything that you think you can count and measure is something that should be looked at,” Ono says.’

Mathematician Ken Ono confers with assistants Jerry Lu (center) and Paige Madden (left).
Mathematician Ken Ono confers with assistants Jerry Lu (center) and Paige Madden (left).

And undergraduate assistant Jerry Lu adds to the list.

“It’s just how they hold their heads underwater, how they time their kick, how do they keep their legs higher so as not to cause drag. We want to minimize that. We want everybody to optimize their own race given how they swim.”

As the data poured in, Ono began calculating – viewing every swimmer as a math problem.

“No two people have the same body type, and there are so many different factors that have to come together to make a world-class swimmer," he says.   "If you want to get faster, you want someone to tell you how you can get faster, and without that knowledge, you have to guess. We don’t guess.”

Emma Weyant, for example, won silver in Tokyo:

“That was probably one of the best experiences of my life!” she recalls.

But Ono told associate coach Blaire Bachman that the 20-year-old swimmer’s turns could be faster.

“The distance that she is from the wall when she initiates those turns correlates to the power and acceleration that she gets when she pushes off," Bachman says. " There’s at least a tenth of a second on every single turn for her that over the course of a 500 or a mile race adds up to anywhere from 6 to 9 seconds.”

In addition to guiding technical advice, Ono’s process appears to build confidence. At 21, Paige Madden doubted she could qualify for an Olympic event, but Ono’s analysis showed her left side was stronger than the right. By building up that right side and tucking her chin to streamline, he was convinced Madden could improve her speed by six seconds.

“At the time I didn’t believe him, but he did the math, and he said, ‘I think you can do that,’ and then I did.  I have to give him credit for believing in me and just saying that,” Madden says.

She was one of five UVA students who returned from Tokyo with an Olympic medal. She’s since turned pro and is assisting Ken Ono. Now, they hope hours of work in the pool coupled with hours of mathematical calculation will bring another victory when the team competes in the NCAA Championship beginning March 16th.

Updated: March 9, 2022 at 1:55 PM EST
Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.