Season 4 - Episode 431
Olympic competition is rarified air reached by few athletes in the world—among them, a Baylor professor. In this Baylor Connections, meet Alex Yokochi, professor of mechanical engineering and a swimmer for his native Portugal in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 games. Yokochi shares his Olympic journey, training regimen and memories, and examines similarities between high-level athletic competition and academics.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And our guest today is Dr. Alex Yokochi. Dr. Alex Yokochi serves as Professor of Mechanical Engineering in Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science. An expert in materials, energy and chemical processes, Dr. Yokochi joined the Baylor faculty in 2016, coming here from Oregon state, along with his wife, fellow ECS professor, and a former Baylor Connections guest as well. Dr. Annette von Jouanne. Dr. Yokochi can also claim another title, in addition to professor, that of Olympian, an accomplished swimmer in his native Portugal, he swam for Portugal in three Olympics, 1984 in Los Angeles, 1988 in Seoul, and 1992 in Barcelona, with his main events being the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke. And he's with us today here on the program as the Olympics are in a swing here in 2021. Dr. Yokochi, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here on the program today.
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. Thank you very much for having me.
Derek Smith:We mentioned that you came here to Baylor in 2016. Baylor has a great Olympic history, although we talk more about Baylor's Olympic history with runners like Michael Johnson, Jeremy Wariner, and others. Was that something you had any awareness of when you came here?
Alex Yokochi:I had heard of Michael Johnson. I remember he, I think, his first Olympics were my last Olympics. And I remember that everybody was watching for his performance in 100 meters or something like this.
Derek Smith:Yeah, at 19 at Barcelona was when he really broke out.
Alex Yokochi:Yes. And I realize I had him conflated with somebody else, but yes, I knew about Michael Johnson. Yes.
Derek Smith:Well, you, he, very few people can claim to have experienced Olympic moments like you did. Do you find, are there common reactions when you're talking to students or colleagues or just anyone who finds out that you have an Olympic background?
Alex Yokochi:Yes. As you saw, people seem to be surprised that I have an Olympic background and people seem to think it's some kind of a virtue. But for me, I assume it's something perfectly normal, that just goes with my persona. So, I never really stopped to think about it.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Alex Yokochi from Baylor Engineering and Computer Science. Let's go back a little bit. Let's talk about your path to the Olympics. I mean, it started just with a love of swimming. Take us inside your childhood. When did you discover a love of swimming? How did you develop that?
Alex Yokochi:Yes. So, my father had come to Portugal at the behest of the Portuguese government to introduce the idea of competitive swimming. So, from a very young age, I remember going to the pool every day with him just while everybody else was having swim practice. I was the four year old that was just getting in the way of everybody. Then, ever since then, I've been in the pool every single day since then.
Derek Smith:So you came by it naturally with a bit of a family history to be around it. What do you remember about maybe discovering that you had a love for it, not just maybe a love, but an aptitude for, that you were good?
Alex Yokochi:Yes. So, again, I joined competitive swimming when I was young. I started winning events that was, I think that's the normal progression of the top athletes, they just seem to beat everybody else. Then, just before 1980, the Olympics that we boycotted, I realized that I was close to the cutoffs. So, that's when I started trying to swim a little bit more seriously. I was 15 at the time. So, I actually made the team, but the team didn't go. Then, the follow-on was then the Barcelona, and LA, and Seoul Olympics.
Derek Smith:When you had that moment, when you realized that that was a possibility around the age of 15, did anything change for you? I mean, obviously, you are preparing at a high level, but when you think about realizing, "Okay, the Olympics are a reality." Was there a renewed sense of purpose? Or was it just more of what got you there?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah, honestly, it was just like more of the same. It was just more of... So, I'm going to try to make it to the next Olympics and I'm going to keep working hard. And it was just the normal thing for me to do at the time.
Derek Smith:Dr. Yokochi, we say more of the same or the normal thing for you, but I would imagine the regimen that you took part in was pretty rigorous and something that most of us haven't experienced. So, could you take us inside what it takes to prepare and maintain yourself as an Olympic athlete?
Alex Yokochi:Sure. So swimmers tend to do doubles, we tend to practice twice a day and then do some dry land training in the middle. So, usually we had the morning practice from about 5:30 in the morning to about maybe 7:30 and then we'd have practice again in the afternoon, from sometime about 4:00 to about 7:00 or so. So, the key thing was just to be able to ensure that we had enough rest. So, my whole life, I had to develop this discipline to not... To make sure to be resting by about 9:00. So, that between 9:00 and 5:00 in the morning, I could rest. Yeah. So, things that went out the window where things like socializing with people and just the usual hanging out and all that, that happens when you're younger.
Derek Smith:And that's worth pointing out. As we talk about your Olympic background, obviously, the fact that you are a professor, a researcher, as a younger man, you pursued your doctorate, shortly thereafter, after the time you were in the Olympics. So, you had a lot of things going on at this point. So, could you help us understand, picture what it was like to be both a student and an athlete then, and juggle all that?
Alex Yokochi:Yes. So, student athletes do have a special regimen that we need to follow, again, because we're investing so much time in the athletics. So, it's about six plus hours a day that we're investing in that. We do need to invest just about 100% of the remaining of the time in academics, other than resting, like I said. So yeah, so we dedicate another six to eight hours a day to the academics, and then we rest the rest of the time.
Derek Smith:There's not a lot of flab in a schedule like that, right? There's not a lot of spare time. Was that something, you talk about the discipline that it took. Was that something that came naturally to you? Did you have to continually work at it? I mean, you must've had some aptitude for that.
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. Evidently, I didn't really have the need for as much social interaction. The social interaction, my socializing was honestly with the folks in the swim team. Like I expect many of the student athletes here, their socializing is probably within the team more than outside the team. We do happen to have one student athlete that's in our research group right now. He's a football player and he's now being both part of the research group and being part of the football team. So, I imagine that he's going through very much a similar thing right now. But yes, I imagine that student athletes in general just are able to be more focused and more self-sufficient and be able to just do without some of the other luxury time that some of the people have.
Derek Smith:That's cornerback Zeke Brown you're talking about?
Derek Smith:Yeah. I bet. Do you see a little of yourself in him when you think about what all he's doing?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah, Ezekiel is a great. I'm really looking forward to the rest of his football career and then his professional career. Because he's a fantastic young man to hang out with.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Alex Yokochi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, excuse me, at Baylor School of Engineering and a three-time Olympic swimmer. So, we talked about your main events being the breaststroke, the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke. What does it take physically, mentally, the skills that you have to develop to be excellent, in particular, in your main races?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. So, naturally, you do need to have the natural aptitude for swimming. So, I know many people that, despite all the goodwill in the world, they just didn't have that. So, you do need to have the special aptitude to be in the water, which is a foreign environment for some people. Then, beyond that, you do need to have the discipline to practice seriously and to take the sport seriously. So, I knew many people that had very good aptitude for swimming, but they just didn't have the ability to be in the water and really just focus on the swimming.
Derek Smith:When you were practicing, if you're a baseball player, maybe you're thinking about your swaying. Or a basketball player, your shot. Were there areas that you were particularly working on, constantly working on in your muscle memory, that maybe most people could kind of picture?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. So, in particular, I will confess that I'm terrible at muscle memory and I'm terrible at doing things by rote. So, I actually think about every single stroke that I take. Okay? At the risk of going into a little bit of a professional field, ever since I was a swimmer, I've been fascinated by the way that the water moves around my hands. So, I can actually, I could totally model it using computational fluid dynamics, which is a thing that I do right now. But I could always visualize the way that the water flows around my hands and my feet. And just really focused on being as efficient as possible with every single stroke.
Derek Smith:Wow. So, that's something, as you are racing, you could feel that.
Derek Smith:You got to experience it from the inside. So, let's talk about some of your memories, back to 1984 in Los Angeles, your first Olympics. What memories are at the forefront for you of that?
Alex Yokochi:So, the main things I remember is, in fact, the opening ceremony. So, I remember walking into the stadium that had, I actually don't know how big the stadium was, but probably like 50,000 people, and all the 50,000 people focused on you. It was a really, very, very different moment being in the field and being there with all the other athletes and seeing some people that are friends and competitors. Also, then, seeing all the whole event. I also remember the guy that, there was a guy that was the rocket man. He had like a little rocket on his back and he flew out to the stadium. So, that was kind of fun. But then I also remember, of course, the event and that particular day with the event of having the prelims in the morning and then resting and having the finals in the afternoon, that was also very memorable.
Derek Smith:What do you remember about your first race in the Olympics in 1984, the first moment where you really have that sense of, "Okay. Here we go."
Alex Yokochi:Yep. So, standing on the deck, just before the event, it's interesting how your perspective changes. So, the pool actually looks really foreshortened, so you know how people actually do those shots, where they move the camera forward and they engage the zoom so that you lose the depth of field? Actually, the world kind of looks like that. You go into... So, your world gets really focused on your lane. I actually never swam against the other people. I always [swammed 00:12:39] against myself and the clock. So, it's kind of like when you go into a... When you have tunnel vision, when you're in battle mode, that's essentially what happened, is I could just only see what was in front of me and taking care of that.
Derek Smith:So, as you're about to dive into the pool for some of the races of your life, you've got fans, you've got people, you've got noise. Does that just all blurred together?
Alex Yokochi:That just all disappears into the background. You can hardly hear what's going around you. You're just totally focused on the starter's gun. Then on the feeling in the water and implementing your race strategy correctly.
Derek Smith:So, 1984, you were what, 19 or 20?
Alex Yokochi:I was 19, yes.
Derek Smith:19. 19 your first Olympics. So, as you mentioned, as you were talking prior to that, each Olympics is very different, because you're more mature in the subsequent ones. You also competed in '88 in Seoul, and '92 in Barcelona. What do you remember about those?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. So, '84 was great. That was like, it was my first time ever. I was like the new guy in the block, I was just there with everybody, just out there to do my best. At the end, in Barcelona, I was 27 years old, which for a swimmer is fairly old. So, like I said before, I was everybody's grandpa on the deck. So, I behaved like the swimming team captain and just had to give leadership to the younger folks there.
Derek Smith:Do any races stand out to you as being most memorable?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah, I really remember that '84 Olympics finals in the evening, and also the 1988 Olympics final. I remember, in '86, at the world championships, when I was touched out, I actually got second place by six one-hundredths of a second.
Alex Yokochi:Okay. But I also remember a different meeting, which I was first. So, being on the podium, with the American and the Russian, well, Soviet back then, on either side of me so that... And we all knew each other, and we were all fairly good friends, even though competitors. So, that was great.
Derek Smith:We're talking with Dr. Alex Yokochi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor. Yeah, you raced in three Olympics, but along the way, you also began to veer towards the path that's led you here to Baylor as a leading professor and researcher in Mechanical Engineering. Take us inside your thought process, I guess, in your 20s, as you began to think about, "Okay, swimming is not going to last forever. I have a direction I want to go." Where did you begin to find that draw towards engineering?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. So, I've always had attention for science and engineering. Yes, back then, no athletes at the Olympic level were professionals. So, we all had to think about a career in addition to the sports. In fact, most people actually worked in addition to being athletes. So, you just had to focus on what your work, whether you were a teacher at high school, or if you were a factory worker or something. Everybody had a job in addition to being an athlete. So, back then, the natural thing for me, when everybody was 20 years old, was everybody went to college and I just happened to want to study Material Science and Engineering. So, that's what I specialized in.
Derek Smith:How would you describe your areas of specialization now, if you just met someone at church or in line at the library from another department? Yeah.
Alex Yokochi:Sure. So, very early on, on my professional career, I realized that the biggest issues were going to be energy. In fact, having enough energy for everybody to be able to flourish. So, the Lord put a huge nuclear reactor right in the sky. So, there's a huge fusion reactor that provides us with unlimited amounts of solar thermal energy. So, one of my goals is to try to effectively use that solar thermal energy for producing energy for our technological civilization here. I'd also like to try and focus some of our work on serving underserved populations. So, as you know... So, Baylor has several pillars that we'd like to develop right now as part of our Illuminate program. One of them is human flourishing. And hardly anybody gets to flourish if you don't have enough, well, let's start with water, and food, and a little bit of energy that you can use for accessing information and other services that you need to deal with. So, I'd like to use that unlimited amount of solar energy to produce that water, that can then be used to produce food, and that can be used for people's consumption for daily needs.
Derek Smith:If we visited with you or your students in the lab, as you seek to answer some of those questions, what kind of things might we see you doing?
Alex Yokochi:Yeah. So, we build great big reactors... Well, actually, at the lab scale, we build tiny little prototypes of things that will do things like, will be able to store solar heat at room temperature, even though that sounds counter-intuitive, we can store solar heat at room temperature for prolonged periods of time. And then we can regenerate that solar heat whenever we need to use that. The goal of that is, in fact, to be able to make solar thermal energy less expensive, so we can actually use it for the betterment of mankind and the Lord's glory. Okay. So, that's what one of the goals is. So, we do that. We do water distillation processes using solar thermal energy. We do have projects that are sponsored by a number of agencies and foundations.
Derek Smith:That's great. What drew you and Dr. von Jouanne to Baylor?
Alex Yokochi:So, very specifically, the ability to work with students, being able to develop their futures, not only for, let's say, a 30 year professional career that comes after finishing their studies, but we should also realize that after that, there comes an infinity of years that's their eternity. So, being able to steer the students towards a positive, towards the kingdom of God, rather than just developing them for a professional career and then forgetting about the more important part of their existence was the key thing why we came to Baylor.
Derek Smith:That's great. So, we visit with Dr. Alex Yokochi as we head into final moments of the program. I want to ask you, are there any similarities between being an Olympian and, now, a researcher and a professor that you draw on? What does it feel like to you, maybe, looking back now at yourself as a young man competing with the best of the world and how that shaped you today?
Alex Yokochi:Sure. So, there's a few ways in which they could tackle that. So, from a personal point of view, yes, there's the fact that you work for a year, and then once a year, you get to go to what, in my mind, is still the big meet, which is your Professional Associations Annual Meeting, and you get to present what you've done and you get to hang out with all your competitors, yet friends, at other universities. If I focused on it more from what happens during the year. So, I'm no longer just the competitor. I also have this group of students that we've talked about. So, I get to... Now, I'm kind of their coach, even though I'm also kind of their peer. So, leading the grad students, helping them develop their potential. It's actually really tough to not just do the work. You have to sit back and allow them to do the work at their own pace, so they can figure out how you do this thing. Just being able to provide the leadership in a gentle way, that'll help develop their careers and their abilities.
Derek Smith:I promised that was the last question, but I do have one more, how much is swimming still a part of your life? Do we find you in the pool much these days?
Alex Yokochi:Yes. So, we actually were fortunate to live in central Texas. So, we have a pool at our house and we get the swim every day for maybe an hour a day, and just use that as the end point of our day, just before we retire for the day and get ready to tackle the next day.
Derek Smith:That's great. So, you still get to enjoy that a part of your life, that goes back to when you were a young man swimming in Portugal.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us, your background, and letting us kind of see your path from Portugal and the Olympics to doing what you do here at Baylor. Really appreciate that. And hopefully that adds even a little extra Baylor tie for people as we watch the Olympics here these weeks.
Alex Yokochi:Absolutely. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share with people.
Derek Smith:Thank you very much. Dr. Alex Yokochi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science. Our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor connections.