Dana Vollmer is not the first mother to compete at U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming.
Most recently, both Janet Evans and Amanda Beard tried to make the 2012 Olympic team after having children.
Nor would she be the first mom to compete in an Olympic Games, should she qualify at trials. Dara Torres swam at the Beijing Games in 2008, winning three silver medals. And Torres was one of many U.S. moms to have won medals in Olympic competition. At the 2012 Games in London, 13 moms competed for Team USA, with seven winning gold or silver medals, including beach volleyball’s Kerri Walsh Jennings and soccer’s Christie Rampone.
But Vollmer, 28, might be one of the only mothers capable of reclaiming a world record in the pool.
When Vollmer won the 100-meter butterfly at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she set a world record of 55.98 seconds. Last summer at the 2015 world championships, Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström lowered it to 55.64.
Vollmer’s comeback did not start out with such lofty goals. She stepped away from swimming after the 2013 world championships, where she won a bronze medal in the 100 fly and gold in the medley relay. She had been competing at the sport’s highest level for 13 years, including at two Olympic Games (2004 and 2012). It was time to start a family with husband Andy Grant, a former Stanford swimmer.
But her pregnancy was not easy. In the first trimester, she suffered from migraine headaches. Then she spent the last few weeks on bed rest.
Lying in bed, she began contemplating a comeback.
“I knew that with a newborn, I was going to be way more tired than I’d ever been,” she said by phone on her way home from practice one morning in May. “I knew that I’d need to have a big goal just to get myself to get up every morning.”
But she left her options open. If training interfered with nursing, or if long hours in the pool kept her away from her baby, then it wouldn’t work.
“I wanted to give it a shot and see if I could handle doing both,” she said.
Son Arlen was born on March 6, 2015. Six weeks later, Vollmer dove back into the pool. Then in early May, she rejoined her team at the University of California, Berkeley under coach Teri McKeever.
Her initial goal was to become one of the top 100-meter butterfly swimmers in the country again. Vollmer is the only American woman to swim the event under 57 seconds. And she and Sjöström are the only two women to ever swim the 100 fly under 55 seconds.
During Vollmer’s hiatus from swimming, Kelsi Worrell, 21, was the fastest American in the 100 fly. She swam 57.24 seconds at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games.
Vollmer’s goal was to see if she could get back to swimming a “56-high, 57-low” 100 fly again. She was a #MommaOnAMission — a hashtag she created.
“[I started it] to prove that I could come back after having a baby, and I could make the schedule work, and I could be happy doing it and be the great mom that I want to be and be the athlete that I want to be,” she said. “So it all comes together into the Momma On A Mission.”
The mission was quickly accomplished. Less than a year into her comeback, she had met her time goal.
At the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Mesa, Arizona, in April, she swam a 56.94 in the 100 fly — the fastest time of any U.S. butterfly swimmer since Vollmer set the world record in London in 2012. It’s also the fourth-fastest time in the world this year.
She also swam the 50 free in 24.69 — the second-fastest time in the U.S. this year. She beat well-known American freestyle sprinters Abbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel.
At the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Charlotte, North Carolina, in mid-May, Vollmer swam the 100 free in 53.59 after a week of very hard training — coupled with chasing Arlen around. At 14 months, he’s not only walking, he’s running.
It was the fastest 100 free in the U.S. this year, and the fastest that Vollmer has clocked since 2009.
“I'm swimming faster in meets now than I did leading up to London,” she said. “When I went 56.9 in Mesa, I’ve never been at 56 not being tapered or shaved.”
Now her mission has expanded — to include the possibility of defending her Olympic gold medal in Rio. She is inspiring others as well.
“What she’s doing hasn’t been done very often,” Worrell told the Washington Post at the Mesa meet. “It opens a lot of doors for other women to realize, ‘Hey, if she can do it all — be a mother, a wife, a professional swimmer — what can I do too?’”
Vollmer’s training has changed since her lead-up to the London Games. No longer can she practice in the morning, then rest as needed. Now, she practices in the pool each morning — what has become her “me” time. Then she spends the rest of the day with Arlen.
It’s parenting as cross-training — running, lifting and holding a toddler, and resting only when he rests. As Olympic Trials approach, she will bring in reinforcements — grandparents who can help care for her bundle of energy.
In Omaha next week — her fifth trip to Olympic Trials (she was the youngest competitor, at age 12, in 2000) — she plans to compete in the 100 fly, and 50 and 100 freestyle races. Then ideally, she will make it to the finals in those three events in Rio.
In the 100 fly, she has watched how fast Sjöström is swimming. And it was hard last summer when the Swede finally broke her world record.
“I'm happy that the sport is moving forward,” she said. “But it’s that lifelong goal that I had wanted for so long, to get an individual world record. Then to see it fall is definitely challenging.”
In early April, the Swede came within 0.04 seconds of her world record at the Swedish Open, swimming the 100 fly in 55.68, the second-fastest time ever.
Vollmer is undeterred. When asked if she can reclaim her 100 fly world record, she said without hesitation, “I think I can.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.