Sage and Ken Ono: Swimming and Mathematics at Emory University

Sage and Ken Ono: Swimming and Mathematics at Emory University

Although it is common for students to attend a university where they have a parent working, there is nothing ordinary about the father-son duo of Ken and Sage Ono at Emory University.

Sage, a sophomore swimmer, began his athletic career at Emory by swimming on a pair of NCAA Division III champion relays and helped the Eagles to their first NCAA men's swimming and diving title in program history last season.

Ken, a renowned mathematician who specializes in number theory and serves as Vice-President of the American Mathematical Society, is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics at Emory University and represented Team USA in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cross Triathlon Championship three times.

In addition to athletic and academic excellence, they share a non-traditional path to undergraduate study as neither of them finished high school. "It's a family trait," Sage joked. Amid overwhelming parental pressure to succeed, Ken dropped out of high school and went to Montreal to temporarily live with his brother Santa (who later attended University of Chicago, became a college president and currently serves as the 15th President and  Vice Chancellor of University of British Columbia). Eventually, Ken enrolled at University of Chicago, where he not only earned his bachelor's degree, but through competitive cycling, met his wife Erika (Anderson) Ono. Sage, who left high school after his junior year, took a more direct route to a university of higher learning than his father, enrolling at Emory at age 16.

Photos: L, Ken and Erika at University of Chicago PsiUpsilon formal; R, Ken and Erika in Maui

The core tenet of the UAA is that academic and athletic excellence are not mutually exclusive with each of the institutions known for being exceptionally strong in research. Although the impact science has had on athletic performance is well documented, Ken believes that the sport of swimming has yet to capitalize on that relationship. His project is a coordinated collaboration involving original research in mathematics, the assessment and training of elite swimmers, and intricate software design by computer science students. In addition to being a national champion swimmer, Sage is also a computer science major.

For more information on the swimming study:
Elite Student-Athletes Team Up With Emory Mathematician Ken Ono For Swimming Study

"Ken first mentioned the idea to me in the summer," said Emory men's and women's head swimming and diving coach Jon Howell. "He has so many ideas, but he kept coming back with this one. I see it as a unique opportunity and I have really enjoyed working with him. We will see whether it amounts to something, but it could be revolutionary."

"It appears to be cutting-edge research that has not been done with any water sports," said Assistant Vice-President/Clyde Partin Sr., Director of Athletics Michael Vienna. "Ken is a world class mathematician and researcher. We have an elite coach. I have great faith in both individuals."

"I am excited about the possibility for our students to work through a novel project like this one that shows how scientific research can have real-world application in unexpected settings," remarked Michael Elliott, Dean, Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Charles Howard Candler Professor of English. "This project offers the opportunity to connect two of the crown jewels of Emory University — the swimming and diving team and the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science — to advance their shared goals of education and excellence."

It may have seemed Ken was destined to be a mathematician, given that his father, Takashi came to the United States from Japan to work at the Institute for Advanced Study shortly after earning his PhD in mathematics. The elder Takashi learned about one of the world's most famous mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan, at the 1955 Tokyo-Nikko conference, the same conference where his mathematical prowess was discovered by French mathematician André Weil. Takashi eventually became a professor at University of Pennsylvania before a 42-year career as a professor at Johns Hopkins University. A math prodigy at a young age, Ken reasoned at age eight that there must be infinite numbers. However, the pressure to follow in his father's footsteps was extraordinary and he spent much of his adolescent years fighting against becoming a mathematician himself. In fact, he began his time at Chicago studying medicine.

Eventually, Ken did switch his major to mathematics and after graduating from Chicago, earned his PhD from UCLA in 1993. Influenced greatly by his father and by studying Ramanujan's work, Ken has gone on to accumulate numerous honors and awards. He was an Associate Producer and the mathematical consultant for the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity based on Ramanujan's biography written by Robert Kanigel, and starred in the 2013 docudrama The Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan. He also spent two years studying at the Institute for Advanced Study, just as his father had done. Ken's 2016 biography is titled My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count.

In 2014, Ken joined with S. Ole Warnaar of the University of Queensland and Michael Griffin, an Emory graduate student, to author A framework of Rogers–Ramanujan identities and their arithmetic properties. The work was ranked 15th in Discover magazine's top 100 science stories of 2014. ("Mother Lode of Mathematical Identities Discovered"). 

Sage was born in State College, Pennsylvania and grew up in Wisconsin where his father was the Manasse Professor of Letters and Science and the Hilldale Professor of Mathematics at University of Wisconsin–Madison. "It was important to my parents that I be well-rounded, which included playing a sport and an instrument," he remembered. "Everyone in Wisconsin played soccer so I started doing that, but a shot to my face when I was playing goalie convinced me I needed to try something else." He had started karate at age five and from ages 8-13, participated in karate (becoming a black belt) and the other sport he decided to try, swimming. "I am pretty sure my parents had me start karate so I could focus better," he quipped. "I was better at swimming so I chose to continue that."

Photos: L, Ken and Sage on Christmas 2002; R, Ken with Sage and Sage's sister Aspen

He played several instruments, beginning with the piano, before playing the guitar for three years. In middle school and his time in high school, he played percussion in the school band and timpani for an external band. Naturally, part of being well-rounded was academic. "My dad tutored us in math and wanted us to be ahead of others," he recalled. "It helped me to see further into the future than I would have without that perspective."

Sage admits focus was not his strength in his early teenage years in swimming, but once he had a goal, that all changed. "The club had standards that if you met, you would earn something. There was a jacket that I really wanted. I started putting in the hard work to get that jacket. In two years, I went from a 1:02 to 51 seconds (in the 100 backstroke)."

"After my junior year (of high school), I just wanted to get out and go somewhere else," he said. "I was only looking at Stanford and Emory. Stanford didn't consider me because I didn't have a high school degree."

Emory has been a perfect fit for the Ono family. "One of the main reasons we moved to Atlanta was to be around the strong educational environment here," Ken said. "I traded a large department of colleagues for a smaller department of colleagues so that my kids would have the opportunities to be around super motivated kids." Ken and Erika's daughter Aspen is a senior at Emory, where she majors in environmental sciences and international studies with a focus on developing a holistic view of international environmental relations, especially pertaining to climate and global environmental justice. 

In November, Aspen was part of Emory's delegation to the 2017 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn Germany and ended up serving as the university representative in closed-door meetings with top officials. This semester, her capstone project is helping former President Jimmy Carter edit his latest book.

One of the things that appealed to Sage immediately about the Emory program was how Howell interacted with the team. "He is very relaxed and has a great relationship with his swimmers," he said. "He is more of a friend with suggestions. He doesn't get mad. That style allows him to get closer to his swimmers."

"Sage would struggle with coaches telling him to do something just because they said to," Howell remarked. "He works really hard and is a stereotypical overachiever. Learning is a process of discovery that evolves over time. You need to take time talking through things with Sage. He needs a purpose and a goal. Once he has that, he will do anything."

It didn't take long for Sage to fit right in on the swimming and diving team. "I didn't know what to expect. It was such an interesting atmosphere with Andrew (Wilson) really wanting the team to win nationals," he stated. "From the first team meeting, the team focused on doing what it takes to win the national title. Andrew and the team really pushed me to work harder than I would have on my own."

"Sage slipped right in like any freshman," Wilson remarked. "A lot of people wouldn't even know how young he was. He is very mature and is really a talented kid on so many levels. When I was young on the team, there were a lot of good leaders. I wanted to set that same example for Sage and others."

"Just to be around Andrew and learn from him was very valuable for Sage," Howell commented. "To spend time with someone who was basically a professional swimmer was so good for him."

Sage became an impact swimmer immediately, including swimming with Wilson on two relays that would go on to win the NCAA title. It was another opportunity for him to learn from Division III"s top swimmer and one of the top swimmers in the U.S., whose favorite events were relays. "It's one of the few times you are truly part of a team. You are totally dependent on three other guys," Wilson said. "Swimming for someone else brings out the best in everyone. You see that with Emory's relays. It allows people to do things in a relay that they may not do on their own in an individual race."

Sage took that philosophy to heart and joined Wilson on two relays that set Association records at the 2017 UAA Swimming and Diving Championships. The two joined Cooper Tollen and Oliver Smith in the 200-yard medley relay (1:27.57), and teamed with Smith and Christian Baker in the 400-yard medley relay (3:15.60). Sage also set the Association record in the 100-yard backstroke (48.08 seconds) en route to being named the UAA Men's Swimming and Diving Rookie of the Year.

Photos: L, Sage on UAA championship stand; R, Aspen, Erika, Ken, and Sage

The site of the championship, University of Chicago, was important to Sage since it is where his parents went to school and met. "It had significance. We got to meet a lot of my dad's friends who are still there and get a feel for what his college experience was like," he recalled.

Sage began his NCAA career in style. The two relays that set Association records at the UAA championships won NCAA titles, and set NCAA records in the 200-yard medley relay (1:26.14) and the 400-yard medley relay (3:10.51). Sage earned All-America honors by finishing third in the 100-yard backstroke (47.93 seconds) and garnered honorable mention accolades in the 50-yard freestyle (20.64 seconds) and the 200-yard backstroke (1:48.08). He swam to season-best times in all three events.

He heads into the 2018 portion of his sophomore season with optimism. "Obviously losing Andrew in our medley relays is a big hit, but I think we can be very strong again. I think our sprint relays are as good or better than we were last year."

In the team's most recent competition at NCAA Division I Miami University (OH), Sage finished first in the 100-yard backstroke with two times under 49 seconds, including 48.23 seconds in the preliminaries. He joined Trey Kolleck, Aaron Schwartz, and Smith in taking the 400-yard freestyle relay in 2:57.52, while the 200- and 400-yard medley relay teams posted runner-up finishes.

"Emory has been a good choice for me, " concluded Sage, who earned College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America Scholar All-America honors as a freshman. "There are some fantastic faculty members and being a smaller school, they have the time to sit in their office and talk to the students."

Sage hopes to parlay his unique educational background into a career in educational technology. "My father has an interesting perspective in what matters in education," he stated. "He would bring back his grad students and visiting professors to the house, which was a great learning experience for all of us. We were always taught to take pride in whatever it is we do and do the best we can do." With that, Sage is seeking an internship with Khan Academy, an online educational non-profit organization. "Eventually, I would like to work with them or start up a similar organization." 

For further reading: University of Chicago Magazine story on Ken: Infinite Possibilities