“Didn’t make it,” says Ono, UVA’s Thomas Jefferson Professor of Mathematics and chair of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Mathematics.
Even though he’s a huge fan of the sport of swimming and of the UVA swim team, the result doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the swimmer’s effort.
The key to making swimmers faster is to approach it like a math problem, Ono explains. And if that’s the case, then Ono is particularly well-suited for the challenge; he’s one of the world’s leading mathematicians.
Science in the Swimming Pool
In the classroom, Ono specializes in number theory and studies highly abstract problems involving patterns and properties of numbers that have perplexed mathematicians for centuries. His work has earned him coveted Sloan, Packard and Guggenheim fellowships, as well as leadership roles as vice president of the American Mathematical Society and as chair of the Mathematics Section in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2020, Academic Influence named him one of the world’s 15 most influential mathematicians, and Ono won the Presidential CAREER Award and was named a Distinguished Teaching Scholar by the National Science Foundation.
His work has been used by cryptographers and physicists studying black holes and quantum gravity, but it is also helping transform UVA into a collegiate swimming powerhouse and its athletes into leading contenders for gold in the 2024 Olympics, and it’s highlighting how an endowed chair can be an important ingredient in faculty innovation.
For the world’s elite collegiate swimmers, the difference between winning and losing could be little more than a fraction of a second. Blink and you’ll miss it. So how do you coach an athlete who needs to improve by increments of time that are almost impossible to see? An avid swimmer and former triathlete himself, Ono began to think about how he might use math to make swimmers better as a professor at Emory University.