By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
After winning her first individual gold medal and setting a blistering world record in the 100 butterfly last summer in London, Dana Vollmer decided to take some time off from swimming.
For the first time in a couple of years, Vollmer had time to do some of the things she’d put aside -- and revel in her Olympic accomplishments – in order to dedicate herself to reaching her Olympic goal.
“It was great to take some time for myself, for my husband, for my family,” Vollmer said. “It was definitely needed. I’d reached my goals, and I needed time to reflect and relax.”
When she returned earlier this year for the Arena Grand Prix circuit, she wasn’t swimming as fast as she had before the break, but she had a renewed perspective.
The culmination of that combination of excitement to be swimming again and time away resulted in another national title two weeks ago in Indianapolis – and the opportunity later this month to defend the title she won two years ago at FINA World Championships in Shanghai and last summer at the Olympics.
She acknowledges that she’s come a long way since missing making the 2008 Olympic team despite being a favorite in many of her events.
A born fighter, she’s overcome stomach problems due to an allergy to eggs (cutting gluten out of her diet as well), a torn ACL and a debilitating back injury that made it difficult to get out of bed and required cortisone injections – as well as the creeping doubts that perhaps her best swim days were behind her.
That is definitely not the case, as she proved at the London Olympics, swimming the fastest time ever recorded, beating the field by a couple of seconds and staking her claim as the fastest female butterfly swimmer ever.
“I always thought my stomach aches were the results of nerves, but it was something bigger than that,” Vollmer said. “I had had these injuries and standing up behind the blocks (before finding out what was wrong), I was absolutely a nervous wreck.
“Once we figured out what the problem was, it made a world of difference for me. I was able to train more and felt so much better physically. It affected everything about my outlook about life and swimming.”
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Vollmer became involved with and engulfed by swimming at a young age. Her mom was a swim coach for the Killer Whales.
“She had me in a back carrier on the pool deck before I could even walk,” Vollmer said. “Honestly, I don’t even remember learning how to swim. I’ve just always been in the water!”
Rising through the swimming ranks, Vollmer’s first big taste of success came at the 2004 Olympic Trials, when, at 16, she made her first Olympic team as a member of the 800 freestyle relay.
A dream come true, it set high expectations for the phenom – ones she gladly worked through despite her numerous physical ailments over the years.
“Growing up, I knew that the United States was dominant in relays,” Vollmer said. “Qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Team at 16 was the first true moment when I realized that I might walk away with a gold medal from being a part of the U.S. 800 free relay.
“It still took months for it to really sink in what that group of ladies accomplished that night. It was after the relay performance when I began dreaming of an individual gold.”
Four years after her disappointment at the 2008 Trials, Vollmer fulfilled that dream when she looked up at the board and saw the No. 1 beside her name in London.
It hit her immediately, that she had accomplished something she had made her goal years earlier – and she allowed herself to enjoy the moment and realize the dedication and hard work she had put in to get there had paid off big-time.
“’Oh my gosh! I actually did it!’ were my first thoughts after I realized I won,” Vollmer said. “I have always set incredibly high goals. Most of the time, they are high enough where I sometimes don’t accomplish them for years. I accompany those high goals with lots and lots of little goals to help me reach it.
“When I touched the wall and realized that not only had I won my first individual gold medal but I had also gotten the world record….words can’t describe the feelings. I had reached my ultimate goal! It’s hard for me to believe sometimes that no one in the world has ever swum faster than me. I always assumed that kind of performance would leave me feeling like that was the best performance I could have ever done. But I walked away with a new set of smaller goals to keep chipping away at becoming faster.”
When she’s not swimming, Vollmer enjoys cooking (gluten- and egg-free recipes), doing interior design – “a great hobby that helps my swimming, too!” – and since the Olympics, has added a woodshop to her garage where she can create ideas from her interior design plans. She’s also a self-described HGTV and DIY channel junkie to go with her new obsession with Pinterest.
She’s also started doing more public speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association and hopes to do more and more motivational speaking for nonprofit organizations, schools, teams and companies.
With her and Olympic redemption having been achieved, Vollmer is at peace and very happy with her life and her swimming.
She’s the first to admit it’s been somewhat of a tumultuous journey – but it’s a journey that has given her new perspective about how important swimming is in her life.
“I was realizing and telling myself I am in such a different place now, and when I think about myself and how I feel in the water, I was confident in what I could do," said Vollmer, who also got married since the 2008 Trials. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and I’ve really never been happier or more content.”