July 17, 2008
Editor's note: The following feature appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly>.
By Herb Benenson
When Dana Vollmer stood on the blocks for the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials eight summers ago, she did so as the youngest competitor in the field with only a blurry vision of her potential in the pool.
Although she didn't make the U.S. team that traveled to Sydney for the 2000 Games, she has since developed her extraordinary talents to a level that places her among the elite representatives of her sport. Now 20 and a senior-to-be for the Golden Bears, Vollmer has plans to continue at the top for years to come.
Her list of accomplishments includes world records, NCAA titles and medals at the Goodwill Games, World Championships and Pan American Games, in addition to a gold medal in the 4x200 freestyle relay at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. With a better understanding of herself and the nuances of swimming, she has her sights on more glory in Beijing and beyond, with a goal to race at least through the 2012 London Games.
It is a path that Vollmer almost never considered growing up in Granbury, Texas, a community of about 8,000 located approximately 30 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Instead, she envisioned a basketball career.
"I knew I would play in the WNBA and wear No. 22," Vollmer said. "That was always my dream."
Vollmer, a budding star in both basketball and swimming, was even expected the make the varsity as a high school freshman. But just before ninth grade, she tore the ACL in her knee, which forced her to postpone any stardom on the court. Basketball's loss was clearly swimming's gain.
Shortly after undergoing surgery, Vollmer returned to the pool, where she was able to work on developing her upper-body strength as she rehabbed her knee.
"I was always one to push the limits of what I could do," Vollmer said. "I was only out of the water for about a month and a half. My legs have always been strong, and that's kind of what fueled me through the water. I tried to look at it as a positive and that was my way of doing it. This was my last chance to get some arms on me."
Even before the injury, Vollmer was an accomplished swimmer for FAST, the Fort Worth Area Swim Team. Not only had she already set numerous age-group records and competed at the 2000 Olympic Trials, but she had also earned a spot on the U.S. team for the 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia. At 13, she was the youngest member of the squad and won her first international race, the 50 fly, when the United States faced off against the World All-Stars.
By coincidence, the Goodwill Games also marked the first international trip as a coach for Cal head women's swimming coach Teri McKeever.
Vollmer, who was still years away from choosing a college, saw rapid improvement in her times once her knee finally healed. At age 16, she secured her spot on the 2004 Olympic team when she surprisingly outkicked former world record-holder Lindsay Benko in the 200 free, finishing the race in 1:59.20 at the trials in Long Beach, Calif.
"When I first touched the wall, I looked around in shock," Vollmer recalled. "I had won and I didn't expect to win. I remember just sitting there staring at the clock, wondering if it was real."
The victory started a whirlwind tour for Vollmer - "I was in kind of a daze," she remembered - and after a brief, three-day return home, she was back on the road training in preparation for Athens.
At the Games, Vollmer entered the pool on Day 3 of the swimming competition. She won her opening heat and placed second in her semifinal to earn a spot in the championship race. In the final a day later, she finished in 1:58.98, good for sixth place and a mere 0.53 seconds from a medal.
With one more shot in the pool, Vollmer struck gold as a member of the 4x200 free relay. With former Bear Natalie Coughlin swimming leadoff and Vollmer on the third leg, Team USA sprinted to a more than two-second victory in a world-record time of 7:53.42.
"I knew that we got a world record, but I didn't know exactly what that meant," Vollmer said. "Looking back at the tapes, there's a delay between what Natalie does, then I'll do the same thing. I didn't know how I was supposed to act. I felt really overwhelmed. Then standing on the podium, I looked over the pool with the crowd on both sides and saw the flag go up. I see it crystal clear every time I hear the National Anthem."
The other vision that stands out for Vollmer was spotting her parents and brother in the stands during the medal ceremony.
"It was one of those surreal moments," she said. "I remember being on the podium and looking up, and everybody was a blur but my family. It was a huge crowd. I was really grateful that I could see them and make eye contact."
Once swimming ended, Vollmer returned home to Texas, where the celebration resumed in earnest, especially in Granbury. Just about the entire town turned out for a parade through the central square in honor of its newest star.
Vollmer hasn't slowed down at all over the succeeding years. In fact, it seems her pace has picked up quite a bit. Vollmer claimed gold in the free relay at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships and again at the 2007 World Championships, when the U.S. retook the world record from Germany in the event.
"When we got the world record again, I felt this time it was more true to me," Vollmer said. "I wanted it so much more. It had been taken away from me. Afterwards, I was celebrating. I didn't think about what I was supposed to do. I was so proud to get the record back."
Since arriving in Berkeley in the fall of 2006 - she spent her freshman year at Florida before deciding to move to the West Coast - Vollmer has thrived as a Golden Bear under coach McKeever. As a sophomore, she captured the 100 fly at the 2007 NCAA meet, and she repeated as Pac-10 champ in the 100 fly this past spring. Perhaps more importantly, Vollmer has gained a greater awareness and insight on how to be successful.
"I'm very much impressed with her understanding of herself," McKeever said. "I think the more you understand yourself, the better coach you are, the better swimmer you're going to be. I just see a young lady who is very far beyond her peer group in understanding her strengths and her limitations and willing to work on them, not just as an athlete, but as a leader and as a friend."
Given the vast experience and knowledge she has accumulated, Vollmer still doesn't consider herself a veteran, noting that "I've always been the baby." She approaches her events with the same focus that has served her so well over the years - concentrating only on herself and her capabilities, and not worrying about anyone else who may be alongside. That tactic worked to her advantage at the 2004 trials when she lined up beside Benko for the start of the 200 free.
"I knew I couldn't acknowledge that because I'd get nervous," Vollmer said. "I didn't want to know who was next to me. I just wanted my own lane and my own time. When I was little, I was good at going out and doing my own thing, doing what I know best and not focusing on people that were there and were twice my age and more experienced."
This time around, however, Vollmer has developed a higher confidence level and a keener appreciation of the intricacies of the sport. Much of it stems from McKeever's distinctive training approach that includes such activities as yoga, spin class and dance, without relying solely on swimming thousands of yards per day. In addition, there is an emphasis on specific work, such as turns, starts and overall fitness.
"I feel like I'm a more all-around athlete, so I feel that a lot more can be thrown at me," Vollmer said. "If things go wrong or I'm feeling different, then I can handle it better now. Before, I might have been a little freaked out. I feel a lot more controlled in my races, and I have more strategy for them."
All swimmers who train under McKeever receive the same workout structure, whether it's Coughlin, the five-time Olympic medalist, or an incoming freshman. As they build on their experiences, they are better able to maximize their talent.
The unorthodox methods have clearly paid off, especially in recent years, with more McKeever-trained athletes earning their places on the international scene. Whereas Coughlin was head and shoulders the best swimmer on the team during her tenure from 2001-04, now
McKeever believes there is more depth and a better overall team in place.
"A lot more people understand, respect and appreciate what we're doing," McKeever said. "I really believe that if you're a female swimmer in the United States and you have aspirations of achieving national and international success, this is a pretty darn good place to be."
Among those who have profited from McKeever's methods, besides Coughlin and Vollmer, are Staciana Stitts, Haley Cope, Jessica Hardy and Emily Silver, each of whom has made an Olympic or World Championships squad. Add in international competitors such as Hannah Wilson and Sherry Tsai from Hong Kong and Lauren Boyle of New Zealand, and the number of Bears swimming in Beijing this summer could approach double figures.
Vollmer, who has one more season left at Cal, expects to ride the trend of older swimmers continuing their careers after college and aim for at least the 2012 Olympics. More and more, the top swimmers are not retiring once they reach the postgraduate stage of their lives. Coughlin is showing no signs of slowing down at age 25, and Dara Torres, who won a gold medal on a relay at age 33 in Sydney, captured a U.S. title in the 100 free at age 40 last summer.
"Dana has definite goals about what she wants to do after swimming," McKeever said. "I just think that swimming can allow her to make a greater impact on the next phase of her life."
For her major, Vollmer selected medical anthropology, which links social sciences and medicine and will aid her in studying different cultures around the world and their medical systems. Unique among Cal student-athletes, the choice was natural for someone who possesses her own set of unusual medical concerns.
As a young teen, Vollmer showed signs of Long QT Syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder than can cause irregular heartbeats. Had she been fully diagnosed, it would have ended her career right immediately. Instead, after being cleared to compete, she developed an interest in medical research.
"I still work with kids who have been diagnosed, and I talk to a lot of parents," Vollmer said. "Mine was just rare symptoms of it; I didn't actually have the syndrome. If you have it, you're not allowed to do any athletic activity. That's the hardest thing working with kids."
As she encourages those who are unable to reach her level of athletic achievement, Vollmer has her own array of friends, family and coaches who have helped put her in position for long-term success.
Said McKeever: "I think she's benefited from being in an environment that extends beyond swimming, with people supporting her and encouraging her to achieve exceptional dreams."
It is a vision that comes more into focus every day.