This Teacher Uses Science And Math To Help Student Athletes Swim Faster: NPR

UVA Math Prof. Ken Ono helped swimmer Emma Weyant improve her race time. She won an Olympic silver medal in Tokyo last summer.

Sandy Hausman/WVTF


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Sandy Hausman/WVTF


UVA Math Prof. Ken Ono helped swimmer Emma Weyant improve her race time. She won an Olympic silver medal in Tokyo last summer.

Sandy Hausman/WVTF

When the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships begin next week in Atlanta, the University of Virginia hopes to win races with the help of a mathematician.

Ken Ono leads the math department at UVA, and he combines science and math to guide the training of the Cavalier’s top-ranked swim team.

Paige Madden says Ono’s ideas helped her swim faster.

She was a swimming star in high school, setting seven records for the state of Alabama. She continued to swim for UVA and hoped to compete in the Olympics, but she doubted she could qualify in her best event, the 200-meter freestyle.

Afterwards, Ono studied her swimming techniques and estimated that she could improve her time by six seconds.

“At the time, I didn’t believe him,” Madden recalled, “but he did the math and said, ‘I think you can do this,’ and then I did it!”

Ono begins his analysis by sticking small sensors on athletes’ backs to see when they’re speeding up and when they’re slowing down.

“These sensors give insights into where, when and how an athlete is generating force, and more importantly, where they are ineffective,” says Todd DeSorbo, UVA’s head swimming coach. “Sensors can detect inefficiencies that we can’t see.”

Ono also puts cameras in the water to record every swim and compare points of acceleration or drag with specific moves.

As data comes in, it calculates and views each swimmer as a math problem

“It allows us to see things like the depth of a dive, the angle at which a swimmer pushes against a wall, the distance between their feet when setting up their push,” Ono explains. “Anything you can count and measure should be examined.”

“We want to help everyone optimize their stroke,” says his research assistant Jerry Lu. He notes that swimmers sometimes do things that slow them down, like positioning their head or legs in a way that creates drag or by mistiming their kicks.

As the data pours in, Ono begins to calculate and view each swimmer as a math problem.

“No two people have the same body type, and there are so many different factors that need to come together to make a world-class swimmer,” Ono says. Without data, he explains that swimmers and coaches have to guess how to improve their times. “We can’t guess!”

Athlete Emma Weyant can also vouch for Ono’s approach.

He studied his performance in the pool, then he explained to associate coach Blaire Bachman how Weyant could be faster.

“How far she is from the wall when she initiates these turns correlates with the power and acceleration she gets when she starts,” Bachman explained. “There’s at least a tenth of a second in every corner for her, which over the course of a 500 or a mile race totals between 6 and 9 seconds.”

After training with the math teacher, this swimmer won an Olympic medal

Weyant trained with Ono before the Tokyo Olympics and came home with a silver medal. “It was probably one of the best experiences of my life!” she says.

And her teammate Madden was able to compete better after Ono discovered her right side was weaker than the left. By building that right side, she improved enough to qualify for the Olympics.

“When you get to that level in college, you’ll only improve by making very subtle changes, because you’re already doing a lot of things right,” Madden says. “I had to tuck my chin in a bit more to reduce drag. I also adjusted my hand position when turning. It’s just really little things like that that have been helpful.”

Madden was part of the women’s 200m freestyle relay, which came second in Tokyo, beating the Australians many expected to win.

She has since turned professional but continues to train with the UVA team in Charlottesville and assists Ken Ono in his work. Both will cheer when, after hours of work in the pool and hours of mathematical calculation, the Cavaliers plunge into the NCAA championship in Atlanta.

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