RIO DE JANEIRO – Dana Vollmer can remember it vividly: She was an 8-year-old girl as she sat at home watching the Magnificent Seven win gold at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, and she thought to herself: “I want to do that, too.”
Saturday night, Vollmer and the American 4x100-meter medley team won another benchmark Olympic gold medal for Team USA, the 1,000th in summer competition, the most of any nation, and one that many little girls were no doubt watching from home, as well.
“I think it’s a real big honor for us and it makes us reflect on all different generations of U.S. Olympic teams that came before us,” Vollmer said of that 1,000th gold. “I remember watching Kerri on vault and being like, ‘I want that, I want to be her.’ To stand up here and to know that we are all giving it our all every time we race, that’s what it means to be a U.S. Olympian.”
After Jeff Henderson soared to an Olympic gold across town in the long jump for No. 999 for Team USA, Vollmer, Lilly King, Kathleen Baker and Simone Manuel took to the pool, unbeknownst to them that not only was a gold medal at stake in the relay, but one that would be talked about and cherished among U.S. sporting fans for years to come.
“Winning the 1,000th gold medal for Team USA is amazing,” said Manuel, who earlier this week became the first African-American woman to win individual swimming gold at the Olympics. “And to be able to share that with three amazing women on this relay team, that is the greatest honor that anyone could have.”
It has been a dominant week for Team USA in the pool, all four relay team members collecting multiple medals and, shortly thereafter, Michael Phelps swimming his last-ever Olympic race, teaming with Ryan Murphy, Nathan Adrian and Cody Miller for U.S. gold medal No. 1,001.
And wasn’t it fitting that it was Phelps’ 23rd and last? A new generation of Olympians coming in his wake as the tally resets on the gold-medal ticker board.
“We are part of that legacy,” said Vollmer, 28, a mother at her third Olympic Games. “To get to do it with a team, I feel like with Team USA we are all bound by that same grit, that same effort and that same fighter spirit. To go out and to get that last relay and to be fighting next to your teammates, I think that’s what the U.S. Olympics means to us.”
It took a lot of grit for the U.S. women to win this gold on Saturday night, pushed hard by the Australian and Danish teams that finished two, three.
Baker shot into the pool for the backstroke and swam to a fourth-place split as King came in for the breaststroke. The Olympic champ surged to the lead at the 50-meter mark, and touched the wall behind Russia, in second place. Vollmer's leg was when the U.S. took a lead and never relinquished it, Manuel jumping into the pool 0.10 ahead of the Danes for the anchor.
And then there was gold.
The U.S. women have won the 4x100-meter medley in 10 of 15 Olympic stagings, including in 2012 when Vollmer teamed up with Missy Franklin, Recca Soni and Allison Schmitt.
“I kept thinking back to London and standing up there with those three other girls and the energy that they bring to the team,” Vollmer explained. “It was by far one of my favorite moments. I wanted it to happen again.”
It did, and after a medal ceremony in which all four American women sang along with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Vollmer went up to hug her parents and brother, who she says have been at her side all along the way.
“This whole comeback has just been about family for me,” said Vollmer, who had stepped away from the sport to have her son, Arlen, last year. “To have my mom be there through the birth of my own son and to be the example that I wanted to set for him. I’ve learned so many things from her. She has been the rock and the strength throughout my whole swimming career. … There are hard times and amazing times and you question how on earth you do this every day. To know that my family has been there that was amazing to see my family.”
The U.S. family can now count its Olympic gold medals in the four-digit range, more than the next three nations combined. This has been a breakout Olympics for names like King, Baker and Manuel – but also one of storied, longstanding triumphs like Vollmer, Adrian, Katie Ledecky and – of course – Phelps.
“In 2008, when he won his eight gold medals, I was watching it on TV and thought, ‘I want to do that too,’” said Manuel, then correcting herself by saying perhaps not eight golds in one Olympics. “We know how hard he works to get to where he is. It’s been amazing to be on a team with him. He’s such an inspiration.”
King laughed of a failed high-five between her and Phelps – she went for the five, he went for a fist bump – before the relay, and the kind of leadership he has helped show as a captain and Team USA’s flag bearer in Rio.
Saturday night they shared history with him, but also created a good amount of their own with gold medal No. 1,000.
“This team is incredible,” said King. “I have been on past national teams and none of us have been as close as this.”
“There is such a great legacy behind USA Swimming and Team USA,” said Baker. “To get the 1,000th gold, that means so much. There have been so many people before us and the U.S. has such a history in all of this this. To do it with a relay means even more and to share it with your teammates is awesome.”
Awesome… times 1,000.