Dana Vollmer reacts after competing in the women's 100-meter freestyle at Swimming Winter National Championships on Dec. 1, 2018 in Greensboro, N.C.
Dana Vollmer dived back into the pool this weekend at the 2018 USA Swimming Winter National Championships. The five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, now a mother of two, had not competed in almost a year.
She finished an encouraging fourth in the 100-meter butterfly and 12th in the 100-meter freestyle.
Her ultimate goal? The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. It would be her fourth Olympic Games, and she aims to add to her seven Olympic medals. She will be 32 years old during the 2020 Games and could join Dara Torres and Anthony Ervin as one of the oldest swimmers to win an Olympic medal.
Vollmer also has a new mission: To help moms reach their goals by empowering each other, either by working together in person or by sharing information on social media through the hashtag #ToThePowerOfMom, or viewing the handle @tothepowerofmom on Instagram.
At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Vollmer was a #MommaOnAMission. Fifteen months after son Arlen was born, she qualified for the Rio Games, then went on to win three medals, including gold and a silver in relays and a bronze in her signature event, the 100-meter butterfly.
Now Arlen is 3 ½, and he has a brother named Ryker, born July 4, 2017. At 16 months, Ryker is old enough to play with his big brother, and Vollmer and her husband Andy Grant often hear the boys giggling together.
“This is why I had two,” she said by phone from her home in California. “They play tag, they wrestle, it’s been awesome.”
What wasn’t as awesome was Vollmer’s return to training after Ryker’s birth. Since it was her second time coming back from childbirth, she thought it would be easier. She also had not been confined to bed rest before Ryker’s birth, like she had been with Arlen for two months in 2015.
Six days after Ryker was born, Vollmer returned to the gym — with very light exercises — and was back in the pool with her team (Cal-Berkeley and coach Teri McKeever) in mid-September 2017.
But parenting two young children has a way of derailing plans. Sleep is interrupted, and every baby is different. In Ryker’s case, the little guy liked to nurse often, and Arlen stopped napping around the time Ryker was born — meaning no more afternoon naps or downtime for Vollmer.
“I set the bar a little high for myself,” Vollmer reflected. “Being a new mom is always hard, no matter how many times you’ve done it, I think. It takes energy to just simply be mom, to figure out nursing again, to not have as good quality sleep. I just expected myself to come back even faster because I had done it before, and that just wasn’t the case.”
Her first meet back was the Pro Swim Series in Austin in January 2018. But both boys were sick in December, and Vollmer had to back off her normal training routine. In Austin, she finished 16th in the 50-meter butterfly and 24th in the 50 freestyle, almost two seconds off her seed time.
“I was so stressed going into the January [meet], expecting myself to come back faster than I had before,” she said. “I was pretty disappointed with how I swam in January and decided this needs to look different even than it did from when I was coming back with Arlen.”
The 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials were over two years away. She would use the time to improve her strength and stroke technique and make a nagging high school back injury “a thing of the past.”
“Being in the sport as long as I have and at a level that I’ve been at, sometimes it’s hard to make drastic changes,” said Vollmer. “Something’s working, so sometimes the better you are, the harder it is to make big changes. This was a great opportunity for me to try to do that.”
For 2020, she’s eyeing a 54-second 100-meter butterfly. Vollmer was the first woman to break the 56-second mark in the 100 fly when she swam a 55.98 at the 2012 Olympics. Since then, Sarah Sjöström has lowered the world record to 55.48.
Notably though, Vollmer is not on the 2019 world championship team, competing in Korea next July. The team was picked this past summer from results at the U.S. nationals and Pan Pacs. Vollmer opted to skip nationals. But she is not worried. She has well over a decade of international experience and is confident that the extra training will pay off.
“This is the time to make changes and to really get them to be my new habit so they show up in high pressure situations, like Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games,” she said.
But beyond the nuts and bolts of regaining strength and swimming faster, Vollmer was still struggling. Most swimmers are not parents, and Vollmer was lonely — lonely for companionship from others who are going through what she is.
“It’s crazy to feel so alone,” she admitted. “Of course you’re fascinated and amazed with this new little being that you brought into life. But it’s hard. You’re exhausted. It’s a new kind of struggle. To feel alone in that is hard.”
Then last summer, Vollmer saw on Jeanette Ottesen’s Instagram that the 30-year-old Danish Olympian was aiming for the 2020 Olympic Games. Her daughter, Billie-Mai, was born in December 2017.
The two swimmers first met at the 2004 Olympic Games and have competed together at dozens of international meets since then. Ottesen won a bronze medal in the 4x100 medley relay at the 2016 Olympics, the Danes finishing just under two seconds behind the gold-medal-winning American team, on which Vollmer swam the butterfly leg. The two hugged on the podium.
Vollmer wrote on Ottesen’s Instagram, “Hey, can I come train with you? Would you be open to that? I want to bring both my boys and come train and see if we work well together.”
In late August, Vollmer, her two sons, and former nanny flew to Denmark for a couple weeks. It was the first time the two women had ever trained together.
“It was fabulous,” said Vollmer. “It rekindled a passion that I had been lacking. I was kind of going through the motions, fixing small things. But when it came down to it, it was a really healing trip for me. That’s the only way I know how to describe it, to feel understood at such a deep level — another mom, a multiple Olympian, who really got it.”
From this bond, Vollmer started #ToThePowerOfMom, a way for moms to support each other by sharing tips, information and stories — from both good days and bad. Vollmer believes that women will be stronger and better moms by helping each other.
“If we are lonely and we’re trying to accomplish things that no one has ever accomplished before, we need to do it together,” Vollmer said. “That transcends sports, it transcends national lines, that we have to help each other and support each other. That’s the mission of #ToThePowerOfMom.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.