A stroke of genius: Math and computer science teams with athletes for swim study
Emory Report | Jan. 11, 2018
Andrew Wilson, who graduated in May with honors with degrees in applied math and physics, led Emory’s men’s swimming and diving team to the 2017 NCAA Division III Championship and plans to try out for the 2020 Olympics. Emory mathematician Ken Ono, who was Wilson’s thesis adviser, is launching an analytical study of training methods for elite swimmers.
Emory mathematician Ken Ono is launching an analytical study of training methods for elite swimmers — a joint effort between Emory Athletics and the university’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.
Lead collaborators include Jon Howell, Emory’s head swimming and diving coach, who has led the Eagles to 10 NCAA Division III Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship titles and the 2017 NCAA Division III Men’s Swimming and Diving Championship title, and Madeline Locus Dawsey, a PhD candidate in mathematics in Emory’s Laney Graduate School.
Dawsey was a former NCAA Division I swimmer at the University of Georgia and swam in the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. She won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. National Swimming Team in the 2015 World University Games.
“This study was born out of a conversation I had with Emory assistant swimming coach Cindy Fontana while we were working out side-by-side on treadmills, just two university employees talking about our day jobs,” Ono says. “It’s exciting to turn that conversation into reality.”
Ono’s enthusiasm is infectious, says Michael Vienna, Emory’s Clyde Partin Sr. Director of Athletics. “Emory has a lot of talented people who are passionate about what they are doing and are continually looking for ways to get better,” Vienna notes. “That’s what a university of higher learning should be about.”
The Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, Ono’s work focuses primarily on number theory and its application in physics. He is also an accomplished athlete, currently training for the 2018 U.S. National Aquathlon Championships with the goal of earning a spot on the USA Triathlon Team for his age group (50-54). His training partner is Emory assistant swimming coach John Petroff, who is competing in the 30- to 34-year-old age group.
In addition, Ono served as honors thesis advisor to one of the Emory swimming program’s most heralded student-athletes, Andrew Wilson, who graduated with honors last May with degrees in applied math and physics. Wilson, who plans to try out for the 2020 Olympics, is now a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, but he communicates regularly with Ono and still works closely with an Emory graduate student in the mathematics department, Ian Wagner.
“What makes Ken’s swim-study project so special is that he understands both the swimming and the mathematics extremely well,” Wagner says.
Adds Wilson, “I don’t doubt anything that Ken says he is going to do, no matter what it is. I’m not sure what we will end up learning from this study, but I am sure we will learn something. There just hasn’t been much research like this.”
As part of the swim study, aimed at enhancing athletic performance, Emory mathematics and computer science students will develop tools drawing from the mathematical theory of wavelets and design experiments using human motion sensors attached to varsity swimmers.
They will also need to develop software to analyze the data.
Several of the students who will work on the study also participate in Emory’s swimming and diving program, including Ono’s son, Sage Ono — an NCAA champion swimmer and a sophomore majoring in computer science.
French mathematician Yves Meter captured the 2017 Abel Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, for his role in establishing the theory of wavelets. From dramatically improving the accuracy, efficiency and speed in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to being the basis of JPEG 2000 standards in digital photography to detecting forgeries in art, the theory of wavelets has found many practical applications during its development over the past 20 years.
A key challenge of the swim study will be ensuring the electronic sensors work in water, Ono says. “Recent studies,” he adds, “strongly suggest that inertial sensors have been perfected to the point that they can be put to the test in a pool study.”
“I was really excited when Ken first mentioned the idea to me,” Dawsey says. “I had never thought of doing an analytical study in swimming. It is something that I have never seen done.”
Dawsey recalls training in Colorado Springs with elite athletes, including three-time Olympic medalist Amanda Weir, who was her training partner for several years.
“I have trained just as hard as Olympians, but I didn’t know what I could do to be at that level,” she says. “If I had had sensors measuring my acceleration, deceleration and power, I could have seen what I could have done better.”
Understanding peak performance
A major goal of the swim study is to develop precise models for peak performance for each of the four main swimming strokes and then develop methods for assessing and improving them in individual athletes.
A longer-term goal is to apply the tools and techniques used in the study to other sports. “A tennis study would actually be easier than swimming because there’s no water involved,” notes Wagner, who also serves as an assistant tennis coach. As an Emory undergraduate, Wagner captured the 2013 NCAA Division III Men’s Tennis Doubles Championship with Elliot Kahler.
“Ken has a remarkable career of addressing complex, enduring challenges in mathematics through his combination of technical virtuosity, creativity and collaborative thinking,” says Michael Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
“He is also widely known on this campus and throughout the mathematics community as a generous, active mentor to students and younger mathematicians. Simply put, I cannot think of anyone better to lead a project like this one — both because of his scientific abilities and because of his collaborative leadership,” Elliott continues. “He is someone who is eager to contribute to the Emory community beyond his department and I am thrilled that he has found a partner in Coach Howell.”
“I think I am pretty productive, then I look at Ken and think I need to find a way to do more,” Howell says, smiling. “He is incredible in all that he is able to do in a day, week or month. He has so many irons in the fire.”