Chokran's Formula for Success: Know the Numbers
Angela Chokran

Oct. 16, 2013

By Michael Kasiborski

The life of a swimmer is dominated by numbers. What's your best time in the 100-yard backstroke? What's your fastest split in the 800-yard freestyle relay? They chase and chase and chase faster times, refining their technique, pumping iron in dryland training and constantly working -- always looking to shave a tenth here, a tenth there -- possibly a whole second.

Two-a-days? Swimmers know nothing but two-a-days. They typically train six days a week, twice a day. They are disciplined, and they are calculating. They know the numbers.

Knowing all that begs the question about senior captain Angie Chokran: what came first? The obsession with numbers or the obsession with the pool?

Numbers truly dominate Chokran's life. She trained and trained (and trained some more) until she swam Michigan's fastest career time in the 100-yard breaststroke, the only Michigan woman to break one minute at 59.80. And you bet she knows she is .04 seconds off the fastest career time in the 200-yard breaststroke. She swam it in 2:10.41 last season, just a whisker behind Rachel Gustin's time of 2:10.37 in 1995.

But when she leaves Canham Natatorium, the attention to numbers is actually amplified. You see, Chokran is an actuarial math major. Check the rosters of any college team across the country and you won't see many actuarial math majors. Chokran is in rarefied company. Even at Michigan, only about 100 students will graduate this year with an actuarial mathematics degree.

"Ninety percent of the time someone will ask me what my major is, and I'll have to say 'I'm in actuarial math, do you know what that is?' Because the look on their face gives it away -- they don't know," she says.

Then she lays out a definition of "actuary" that she finds herself repeating time and time again.

"Using math, probabilities, statistics and finances to predict uncertain future events," she says. And then adds this addendum: "Basically risk management."

She invokes the 2004 Ben Stiller movie "Along Came Polly" to try and enlighten the many inquisitors (Ben Stiller plays an insurance risk assessment expert). Someone in Hollywood needs to make another actuary/romantic comedy movie to keep her reference current.

Growing up in South Elgin, Ill., a suburb northwest of Chicago, Chokran gravitated toward numbers, which wasn't too difficult with two nuclear engineers as parents.

"It got to the point that I was helping my friends with math homework and helping my siblings with math homework," she recounts.

And then, in the highest illustration of her love affair with numbers she admits: "I joined the math club, and I liked it."

Swimmers are planners -- you have to be with so much time dedicated to training. So during high school, Chokran began to map out her future.

"My dad was a nuclear engineer, and he set me up with a lot of job shadows. I saw someone in management (at his company), a chemical engineer, a nuclear engineer, a financial engineer and I learned a lot. But I didn't like any of them.

"I was very curious about how I could love math and use it in a career and not be an engineer."

This time, her mom took a stab at it. Laurie Chokran has a cousin named Michael Angelina, who was working as a property casualty actuary. Laurie thought Angie was a lot like Michael, so she hatched a plot to get them together.

"I'd talk to him at family parties and from then on he'd always ask me how math was going; we always had that special connection of loving math."

Michael Angelina's success as an actuary became an inspiration to Angie, and she found the direction she wanted without having to study engineering.

Now she just needed a university that matched her passion. Problem is actuarial math is not as popular an offering as English or engineering, or even French horn. But she found Michigan, loved the program and the opportunity to continue swimming.

"At Michigan, actuarial math is a program that I respect. It's the Michigan difference to go the extra mile and do so much math that it makes your head hurt. But that's what I do."

Chokran's dedication to swimming prepared her for the rigors of being a Michigan student-athlete.

"Ever since eighth grade, I've been in the pool twice a day, five days a week and then one other day of the week. You have to plan when you're going to do your homework, when you're going to spend time with friends and family, and when you're going to plan your future."

She is still engaged in this careful balancing act -- still swimming, studying and planning. Never has that been more evident than this past summer when she took on her first internship as a financial representative.

If you are thinking that financial reps and actuaries are about as similar as backstroke and breaststroke, you are right. But Chokran wanted to throw herself into the professional world while she still had a year of school in front of her. Numbers are numbers, right?

Through a connection with Michigan from the Heart -- an organization that Chokran volunteers with at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital -- she found out about the internship at Northwestern Mutual. She, along with about a thousand other college students, applied for 15 spots. After a few rounds of interviews, she got the job, one of just two women to get hired.

A. ChokranA. Chokran
Girls on the Run Race this past spring
(Chokran is on far right)
Michigan from the Heart outing
(Chokran is in back row, second from the left)

During finals in April of this year, she was cramming not only for her exams at Michigan but also for a state insurance license exam. She eventually earned her license to be a financial representative along with her license to sell accident and health insurance. By the way, she did pretty well on her U-M tests as well.

"This being my first internship, I didn't really know what I was getting myself into -- as most interns don't," she confesses. "Being an actuarial math major, they thought it was odd that I wanted to be a financial rep for the summer, and while that's true, at the same time I've learned in actuarial math about all the ways I can plan to prepare for risk, and I knew all the options clients could need."

At this point, two-a-days looked appealing. While working for Northwestern Mutual, Chokran was essentially pulling three-a-days: train in the morning, work during the day and train in the evening.

She spent her days working with mentors at Northwestern Mutual who taught her the ropes of financial representation. She also coordinated meetings with prospective clients and helped develop investment plans for them.

She says she had the numbers down, but she gained some valuable skills not found in a text book or class room.

"I learned to build sales skills. I learned to build personable relationships; being likeable and working with clients in face-to-face meetings. I learned how to work with mentors."

And she learned that not everyone will say "yes." Rejection can be a powerful motivator.

"I thought clients would want me to do this work for them. By the end of the summer I realized that I would have to take the initiative and find clients to tell them why they needed me to do this service for them."

But by far the biggest lesson she learned? That as individualistic as math can feel, it is a team sport.

"Even as a math major and wanting to be an actuary who simply crunches numbers all day -- that's unrealistic for me," she says. "Every profession will require you to work with other people.

"Being on a team is going to be a part of my life forever. And it's a relief in a way because I've been part of a swim team for like 10 years. I feel like Michigan has prepared me."

She is planning to become an actuary to see how numbers and probability affect real life; now she has seen how real life affects being an actuary. Math does not happen in a vacuum, and her work will not exist in a vacuum. It will affect her coworkers, her employer and her clients and their families.

Chokran is a captain this season, and she is being counted on to lead a young Michigan team in and out of the pool. This summer at Northwestern Mutual, she was the young one -- the rookie -- who had a lot to learn.

"I spent the whole day at work following and then I'd go to train in the afternoon and be the leader. I think now that the summer is over, I spent all that time following and learning from my mentors how to be a better leader."

Go to Canham Natatorium, and you will see Chokran's name on the record board three times, her one individual record and two relays. She swims fast and trains hard, but there's a new part of her leadership equation this season: communication. And she says she learned to use her voice because of an internship that focused on her love of numbers.

"In the past I think I was a leader but more by example. This year, I am taking it to the next level. And that means a lot of encouragement and a lot of vocal leadership."

She is still obsessed with numbers and the impact they have. Her favorite number this year? Thirty-five. That is the number of women on the swimming and diving roster.

"Having been the mentee all summer, it is interesting to switch roles. I learned from the mentors I had all summer, and now I can take what they did for me and do it for my teammates."

It does not take an actuarial math major to realize this could all add up to something big.

Chokran plans to graduate in the spring with her degree in actuarial mathematics. She has already passed one actuarial exam (there are nine in all) and plans on completing a second in December. The tests are a series of professional level examinations, which must be passed in order to be admitted into an actuarial society.