Photo Courtesy: www.theswimpictures.com/Tim Binning - Dana Vollmer
Dana Vollmer has the Olympic rings tattooed in the small of her back. Inside the upper left Olympic ring is a tiny “2004.”
At age 16, Vollmer won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the women’s 800m freestyle relay and helped break a 17-year-old world record in that event.
In the middle Olympic ring, she planned to add a “2008.” But at the 2008 Olympic Trials, she failed to make the team. It was a huge surprise for the swimmer who helped the U.S. women’s relay teams win three medals at world championships in 2007, and who at the 2000 Olympic Trials was the youngest swimmer to compete (she was 12).
As her coach Teri McKeever said, she was “the next thing.”
“I felt like I was supposed to make [the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in] multiple events,” said Vollmer, after winning the 100m butterfly at the 2011 ConocoPhillips National Championships. “It wasn’t supposed to be an option that I didn’t make the team.”
Her parents had even considered skipping the Olympic Trials to save money for their trip to Beijing.
“It was like I was supposed to have already made the team, and I really let all of that get to me,” added Vollmer. “I was almost in tears walking out for my 100 free semifinal. I was an absolute nervous wreck.”
Vollmer could be the poster child for Olympic redemption. In the past three years, the 23-year-old swimmer from Granbury, Texas, has rediscovered her love of swimming. And it’s led her back to the podium. She won medals at both the 2009 and 2011 FINA World Championships, among other competitions, and she is now the reigning 100m butterfly world and national champion.
Her path back to the podium began shortly after 2008 Olympic Trials. McKeever, the Cal Golden Bears women’s head coach and assistant coach for the 2008 Olympic swim team, didn’t want Vollmer to quit.
“She had another year of college,” said McKeever. “I was hoping she could put perspective on it, that making ’08 or making 2012 isn’t going to define her swimming career. There are other things to define your time as a swimmer. That she had unfinished business college-wise, if she wanted to help us do things as a team.”
So Coach McKeever suggested that Vollmer fly to Fiji and compete in an open water swimming race.
“[It was] something I’d never done before,” said Vollmer of swimming in the ocean. “There were coral and fish, and it was gorgeous. It helped me realize that I love swimming, and I love being in the water.”
She also realized that she had to change her approach to training and competing.
“Looking back on it now, I was swimming for so many other reasons than just having fun and loving the sport,” said Vollmer. “My mentality going into the race was much more what would happen if I didn’t swim well, who was watching me, would