The sorcery and science behind Virginia’s swimming dynasty
ALEX WALSH SLOWLY exhales, moving to the bottom of the pool. Bubbles rise to the surface as it sinks. Her hands find the tiles at the bottom of the pool and she puts her feet into a handstand. A long exhalation keeps her anchored underwater.
Quickly, before her fingers leave the tile, Walsh begins to walk on her hands. One, two, three steps… she does seven in total. Her lucky number. This is also the number of heats she will swim this week at the ACC Championships. This is her first foray into the competition pool before the start of the races, and walking on her hands is as necessary as putting on a swim cap before the first horn.
A day earlier and 180 miles away, Walsh had taken his last dive into the University of Virginia’s home swimming pool before leaving for the conference. She sank to the bottom for a handstand. One, two, three steps… seven in all.
Ask Coach Todd DeSorbo and he’ll tell you why: The process takes hard work and preparation from home to competition.
“It’s magic,” DeSorbo says simply.
DeSorbo, who calls himself a “new school” coach, doesn’t remember when he discovered mojo’s mobile properties, but UVA swimmers have been using it since it arrived in August 2017. “Magic” works like this. helped start a period of devastating dominance in NCAA women’s swimming. The Hoos, once national champions, will compete in Knoxville this week for their third straight national championship.
But make no mistake, legends aren’t just built on fairy dust.
Along with magical traditions, there are micro-adjustments prescribed by Dr. Ken Ohno, a University of Virginia mathematician who is obsessed with minimizing swimmers’ stroke inefficiencies. The angle of the hand when entering the water. The force of impact when repulsed from the wall. Breathing efficiency when the swimmer heads home.
“Mathematical optimization,” Ono says simply.
At the heart of this championship algorithm, of course, are otherworldly talents. Alex Walsh is a true Phelpsian. Her younger sister Gretchen Walsh is a versatile world class sprinter. Keith Douglas is one of the greatest NCAA swimmers in history.
New science, plus pixie dust, plus world-class swimmers open to non-traditional cultivation methods? This is a simple formula for creating a subversive dynasty in a few years.
GRETCHEN WALSH KNOWS she needs to get outside. It’s a 50m freestyle, the fastest race of the competition, and it kicks hard. With her long arms and powerful underwater movements as a dolphin, Gretchen often flirts with the 15m mark, the demarcation line where swimmers must stay above the water or risk being disqualified. The red buoy marking the line is not visible from underwater; no bright red laser. So Gretchen should know when it’s time to rise. But cutting it as close as possible gives her the best chance of winning; she saw the math and celebrated the results: 12 kicks from the dolphin (at least until it tapers off) equals victory.
“I come at exactly 15,” she says. “Some people may have something to say about it, but it’s clean. It is legal”.
The flexibility of Gretchen’s knees, ankles and elbows are her quirks. At 6ft 1in, she dabbled in basketball when she was younger, but Gretchen was built for the water.
So far, she’s been doing well in this race. She successfully started from the block, paying close attention to the advice she was given to bend her front leg another degree or two for a little extra acceleration. She got a good push against the wall.
Now she breaks through the surface of the water exactly at the signal and directs her long arms to the finish line.
When she touches the wall, the roar of the crowd almost blows the roof off the Greensboro Aquatic Center. Gretchen posts 20.83.
“I knew I was good at scuba diving, I just didn’t know how good at the time,” says Gretchen. “After seeing the data on how much momentum I generate when I kick underwater, how it compares to other people, I think it just solidified for me… that I need to highlight that in my race.”
Her time at the ACC championships is good for the conference, NCAA and American record, exactly 0.01 faster than her teammate Douglas and Gretchen’s first individual record.
In swimming, tenths and hundredths of a second matter – about the speed of a hummingbird’s wing. And there’s a guy at UVA who spent hours figuring out how to shave them.
MAN CLUTCHING An iPad sits on the pool deck and watches as the combined men’s and women’s UVA teams take on Virginia Tech.
His iPad outputs data in the form of spikes that measure the movement, or force, with which a swimmer moves through the water. There are also videos thanks to some underwater cameras.
Speed is affected by many things: the number and time of dolphin strikes, the position of the hips in the water, the stroke under water in the breaststroke, and much more. Figuring out the best approach to seemingly small, inconspicuous solutions in the water seems intimidating. This is something like analytics in football and basketball. processing the data to find statistics such as completed transfers compared to expectations is mind boggling.
But Ono, a mathematician and swimmer, loves such problems. He took up swimming and turned it into a math problem, setting the stage for the closest swimming analysis in existence to come close to Moneyball.
Warning: explaining this process will be a bit like Doc Brown putting a flux capacitor in his DeLorean.
“With the help of accelerometers, gyroscopes and high-definition video, we can mathematically replicate every swim an athlete performs in a pool,” Ono says. “And we’re looking into this data along with the tests we’ve done on athletes that will give us an idea of how much G an athlete can generate with this movement compared to another movement.”
For the layman, how well does a swimmer move through the water with a dolphin stroke or breaststroke, or with one hand during freestyle versus the other? It can answer all these questions with the help of mathematics, sometimes with incredible results.
The professor immersed himself in the world of NCAA swimming while working with Andrew Wilson when he was a student at Emory, a Division III school in Atlanta. Wilson wanted to be on the team, but he needed to get faster. “He was a great math student,” Ono says of Wilson. “We started modeling some things together. He made the most incredible, extraordinary improvements over a four-year period, perhaps in the history of North American sailing.”
It sounds pretty far-fetched, but Wilson is believed to have become the first Division 3 swimmer in history to make the U.S. Olympic team when he traveled to Tokyo. He reached the final in the 100m breaststroke, placing sixth. And he won the gold medal for the preliminary heats in the 4×100 medley relay.
Indeed, mathematical optimization.
It moved to the University of Virginia in 2019 and began working with DeSorbo and the swim program soon after. Paige Madden, who will win four senior NCAA titles in 2021, has benefited from a simple change in breathing. Ono noticed that her right side constantly generated twice as much acceleration as her left side. The fix, or micro-adjustment as Ono calls it, was to have Madden occasionally breathe to the right during pre-race warm-ups “to get used to having her body in this fully rotated position to help her catch water better.” says one of Ono’s assistants, Jerry Lou. Lou grew up swimming in the same club as Wilson and Katie Ledecky and Phoebe Bacon. He was already a UVA student when Ono arrived and he jumped on board.
Ono and Lou also worked with Madden on her underwater dolphin moves. Unlike some swimmers, Madden’s kicks got stronger with each added kick, meaning her third kick provided more propulsion than her first. Ohno and Lou suggested that on the last 50 of the 400 freestyles, Madden added a couple of extra kicks – energy management was also important here, so swimmers couldn’t just do an unlimited number of dolphin kicks throughout the race.
The goal of the Ono program is not to turn every swimmer into a Phelps or a Ledecky; such things are impossible because every swimmer is unique.
“We have athletes on a national scale, and if you advised them to swim like Olympic champions in their competitions, emulating their strategy, our athletes could be much worse,” Ono says. “Someone may do seven or eight dolphin wall kicks each time, while others, who may be much less flexible, should only do three. But then focus on other aspects of swimming.”
Thanks to Ohno’s observations, Alex Walsh made small but impressive changes to her butterfly. Prior to swimming in UVA, Alex hadn’t swum a ton of butterfly. Now this is much more important to her as someone who swims in IM and, by the way, is also the reigning NCAA 200 butterfly champion. The suggestion for Alex was to forcefully plunge her knees into the water. The displacement of the water causes more movement in her stroke, which ultimately makes her faster. “They tell me to pretend I’m kneeling someone I don’t like,” Alex laughs. “He told me all these things and they seemed like such simple solutions, and while these are habits you have to establish, they are not hard habits.”
Believe it or not, Ono has even exposed flaws in Douglas’ breaststroke—she holds the NCAA record in the 200-yard dash. But no matter how hard you try, no one wants to spill the beans about what makes her one of the most successful female athletes in the history of the sport.
ONE JANUARY MORNING, Douglas takes a breath as the hodgepodge playlist rumbles through the gym. The room buzzes around her as teammates chat between sets. However, Douglas is focused and efficient.
She looks at a 42-inch stack of soft cylindrical “boxes”. She started at 36 this morning and decided to increase her last two sets. Almost everyone else is…