It has been more than one year since 2016 Olympics hopeful and impending 2017 Emory graduate Andrew Wilson has stepped into an Emory classroom, but the university and its community has stayed a part of his daily regimen.
Two or three times a week, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics Ken Ono Skypes with Wilson — an activity that Ono does not typically do with his students — and reviews a myriad of topics, including graduate-level algebra problem sets and Wilson’s honors thesis that he will begin when he returns to Emory this August after taking a year-long sabbatical to train at the University of Texas at Austin in anticipation of this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Wilson met Ono in the latter’s Foundations of Mathematics course, a class in which the former notched a perfect score on the final exam. After Wilson was invited to join the math department’s honor’s program, he cycled through a litany of potential thesis advisers, but ultimately chose Ono because of the relationship they fostered over the course of Wilson’s sophomore year, in addition to the fact that he was intrigued by the topics of research Ono had done.
Wilson’s honor’s thesis topic will potentially entail one of those very topics of research — rogue waves, cryptography, information security or computer vision are all in the mix. The weekly problem sets and thesis preparations that Wilson is completing during his sabbatical are the type of intellectual stimulation that Emory Swimming and Diving Head Coach Jon Howell believes is integral to Wilson’s success in the pool.
“There are athletes out there that can be athletes 24/7 — and that makes them better,” Howell said. “I think for Andrew, being an athlete 24/7 is a negative for him. With Andrew, the academic constant actually makes him a better swimmer.”
If you’ve watched any collegiate sporting event in the past few years, then you have probably seen the NCAA advertisements of student-athletes with a pencil in ear, eagerly raising their hands in a classroom, or the commercials of student-athletes in lab coats, looking intently into a microscope, all with the reassuring voiceover of a man with the conviction that “the NCAA has helped millions of athletes find power outside of the field, court and rink,” or that “just about all of [NCAA’s student-athletes] will go pro in something other than sports.”
But, to Ono, it’s all a farce. Rarely are famous student-athletes in prominent sports programs actually going to class, he said.
“I don’t want to be cynical about this,” Ono says, “but if you’re a sports fan, you probably see the sports ads that the NCAA puts on during college football season with these famous guys who are famous athletes, and they put chemistry goggles on and stuff — you know they’re not in that class. That’s not how it actually works.”
In the wake of leaving Emory — and the mental stimulation that an institution of higher learning provides — for one year to prepare for tomorrow’s Olympic trials, Wilson has realized that he succeeds best in the pool when he is not only an athlete, but also a student.
Four years ago, Wilson could not have fathomed that he would be in his current situation: one day from the Olympic trials that will determine if he will make the United States Swim Team for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“[If, in 2012, you told me that I would be preparing for the Olympics], I would have laughed at you and told you no way,” Wilson said. “I just never thought I’d be at this level … but making the Olympic team would be a dream come true.”
And yet, here he is, with the chance to sport the recently unveiled star-spangled, red, white and blue speedos for Team USA in August.
The formerly “slow and inexperienced” — in Wilson’s own words — swimmer is No. 1 in the 100-meter breaststroke and No. 6 in the 200-meter breaststroke among American swimmers this year. Finishing in the top two in either the 100 or 200-meter breaststrokes during the June 26 to July 3 Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. would earn Wilson a spot on the U.S. team.
If Wilson is able to make the United States’ Olympic swim team, he will have achieved an accolade to which only he can claim. According to The Washington Post, an informal survey conducted by U.S. Olympic historians suggests that if Wilson qualifies for 2016’s Team USA at this week’s trials, he would become the first Division-III swimmer to make the team since the NCAA split into three bodies in 1973.
Wilson could have easily been denied his goal of swimming at the collegiate level in the first place — if not for a little persistence and a little luck.
“Andrew met with me the summer before his senior year and expressed some interest in swimming at Emory,” Howell said. “I gave him some time standards that I felt were appropriate for him to try to hit his senior year, and he was pretty persistent in contacting me, which was good.”
Wilson was ultimately unable to hit the time standards, but two potential Emory swimmers Howell ranked above Wilson decided on different programs — and Wilson kept calling — so, after a comprehensive vetting process, the Coach gave Wilson the roster spot.
“[The vetting process] confirmed my gut feeling — that he’s a great kid who works hard and is motivated,” Howell said. “It took a little persistence on his part. We got lucky, he got lucky — it all worked out.”
Emory’s swim team was the first to extend him an offer, and the last — Wilson accepted it immediately.
For Wilson, persistence and perseverance have been attributes that have fueled him throughout his life — traits that motivated him to devour complex applied number theory problem sets and continue his athletic career through the trials and tribulations of initial failure.
The start of Wilson’s transition from the unheralded to the championed came, in Coach Howell’s eyes, during his freshman year’s winter training trip in between his first and second semesters at Emory.
“He did a couple sets down there that were really, really exciting, and he was still learning and still developing at that point, but there were a couple times during that training trip where I thought, ‘Wow this kid could really be the real deal,’ ” Howell said.
But, still, Howell did not anticipate Wilson’s rise to meteoric levels of swimming prominence.
“At that point, my mind didn’t think, ‘Hey, he could make the Olympic team.’ My mind at that point was that he could be a really good Division-III swimmer and swim at the national level for us. He’s taken it a lot further than I thought he would have at that point.”
From that trip onwards, Wilson only continued to impress scouts, coaches and teammates, culminating in a record-setting time of 59.65 in the 100-meter breaststroke during his junior season that announced his arrival on the national stage.
With the record-setting time, Wilson had coaches from Division-I programs across the country salivating. NCAA rules stipulate that athletes who transfer from a D-III to a D-I program do not have to sit out for any period of time, as is necessary for a D-I to D-I transfer. Wilson could have easily transferred to a top Division-I program and begun training immediately.
After serious deliberation, Wilson’s intellectual curiosity superseded any attempts from UC Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Georgia to recruit him simply for his swimming prowess, according to Ono.
“Andrew was very, very thoughtful in deciding what he wanted out of life and at the end of the day he said: ‘You know, what’s the point of transferring to a big state school just because they have a great swimming program when that would mean I would lose out on the opportunity to write a nationally competitive honors thesis in mathematics? That’s not worth it,’ ” Ono said.
It was after spending the summer of 2015 training at the University of Texas that Wilson decided to leave Emory for the 2015-16 school year to train exclusively at the university for the Olympic trials.
But, Wilson did not realize that the absence of schoolwork would affect his performance in the water.
“He spent the first semester at [the University of Texas] really just being a swimmer, and really struggled with that,” Howell said. “He realized that he needed a balanced approach to life — he needed that intellectual stimulation, and Ken Ono was really helpful with that.”
Though Wilson is chasing his dream through his training in Texas, he remains steadfast in his desire to come back to Emory to graduate in 2017. His peers graduated this past May while he was in Austin.
“Yeah, it’s kind of weird that I should be out in the real world right now, but I’m totally fine with holding off on that for another year,” Wilson said.
“Of course I miss Emory.”
“[Wilson’s] a very cerebral guy,” Ono said. “That’s really the right word for it.”
Ono would provide Wilson weekly with books related to his honors thesis and problem sets of graduate level algebra that Wilson would do on his own.
During his year of training at the University of Texas, Wilson finished one full year of graduate level algebra in three and a half months.
“You probably won’t meet many potential Olympians — and I don’t mean Olympic trial hopefuls, I mean Olympic trial favorites — who are firing at such a high level outside of the pool, academically,” Ono said.
In a few weeks, after the trials, Wilson and Ono will go over 10-12 research papers to narrow down what direction they want to take Wilson’s thesis paper.
The student-teacher relationship goes beyond their discussions of mathematics or swimming. The two have developed a rapport that has allowed them to know each like a mentor knows a mentee, and vice versa. Recently, they have discussed in length “Wilson’s main goal in life:” to become a world-class mathematical scientist or university professor.
“Andrew is beyond a student-athlete,” Ono said. “Someone like that is not supposed to exist. In fact, he’s bad in that way — he’s not a great role model for someone like my own son because it doesn’t seem that someone should be gifted in that many ways.”