When Dana Vollmer was a kid growing up in Granbury, TX, her club coach gave her and her fellow swimmers a sheet of paper with a choice: like to win or hate to get beat. "I always circled 'hate to get beat,'" says Vollmer. "It's a different motivation. It's harder for me to push when I am way ahead. It's one reason I love anchoring relays. I get so much energy when I see someone dive in ahead of me. That's not okay."
Also not okay: thinking you have a chance to beat Vollmer in the 100m butterfly, the event she has decided to own since winning the World Championship gold medal -- her first World or Olympic title in an individual event -- in Shanghai last summer.
Spectators at the Santa Clara Grand Prix meet last weekend saw the effect of the two no-no's combined when Vollmer's Cal Aquatics teammate Natalie Coughlin, whose underwater breakouts are among the best in the world, popped up ahead of Vollmer after the start of Friday's 100m fly final. Vollmer responded by beating Coughlin to the turn and surging ahead in the last 50 meters to win in a meet record of 57.03, nearly a second and a half ahead of Coughlin, the runner-up. It was Vollmer's sixth straight 100m fly finals victory since Shanghai.
"Sometimes I ask her, 'Are you going to play with your race strategy, maybe see if you take it out light, see how fast can you do that second 50?'" says Vollmer's husband of ten months, former Stanford swimmer Andy Grant. "And she'll say 'No. I don't want people to even think they have a chance. The 100m fly is my event. Nobody has a chance and the battle is for second place.'"
Dominance, and the attitude it demands, are new experiences for the 24-year-old Vollmer. Before her breakthrough performance in Shanghai, her decade-long tenure on the national team has been marked more by relay success than individual glory, and her entire swimming career has been punctured by one health issue after another.
As a nine year-old, she broke her left arm above the elbow doing a backflip in gymnastics. As an eighth grader she suffered a complete ACL tear while playing basketball. Soon after she recovered from that surgery, she started experiencing the sudden rapid heart beat of supraventricular tachycardia, the same condition that once plagued her friend and national teammate Rebecca Soni. A corrective ablation in 2003 fixed that issue, but doctors had also noticed heart patterns that suggested Long QT syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. "If they diagnose you with the syndrome, you're not allowed to do athletics," says Vollmer.
After Vollmer had completed a number of stress tests on the treadmill -- "I've grown to hate those," she says -- and a few rounds with a 24-hour heart monitor, doctors noticed the suspicious patterns occurred when she was resting, not when she was exercising; they gave Vollmer the green light to continue swimming, as long as she always had a defibrillator with her. But that, too, was not okay.
"For me to be able to compete and push that fear aside, I took the stance that I'm not going to believe I have the syndrome," says Vollmer. She refused to touch or even think about the red lunch-pail sized device that her mother, Cathy, or father, Les, carted to every meet and practice until their daughter went off to college. "If I had to carry it, then it was really scary to me," says Vollmer. "Then I had to admit to myself that I might need it."
At the 2004 Games in Athens, it was a member of the USA Swimming medical staff who carried the defibrillator around, out of Vollmer's sight, as she helped the USA win gold in the 4x 200m freestyle relay. Yet after the Olympics, Vollmer's health issues escalated. After Vollmer returned home from Athens for her senior year in high school, Vollmer herniated a disk in her lower back while doing a flip turn, creating chronic leg pain that would follow her to the University of Florida the next year.
"A common swimmer thing is shoulder tendonitis, and I had that, too," Vollmer says. "So I think because of the yardage I was doing at Florida combined with the back injury, I basically couldn't swim at the end of my freshman year. I couldn't kick, I couldn't pull, I didn't want any movement through my back."
Vollmer transferred to Cal in 2006 after her freshman season at Florida. After a year, the shoulder problems receded. So did the Long QT-like heart patterns. (The defibrillator remains at Cal, still untouched by Vollmer.) The back problem would linger through 2008.
A bigger problem for Vollmer heading into the 2008 Olympic Trials was the enormous pressure she put on herself to succeed. Her training stipend, her national-team-provided health insurance, her self-esteem -- everything depended on her making the team. "I had it in my mind that I had to have a lifetime best time," she says. "Everything had to work out to get me on the team."
Nothing did. She finished fifth in the 100m fly, seventh in the 200m free, and she failed to final in the 100m free. In the 50m free she didn't even make it out of preliminaries. The whole experience, she says, was "awful."
Yet, she regrouped. In 2009 she won four NCAA titles and earned NCAA Swimmer of the Year honors while helping Cal to its first NCAA title. In 2010, she won four golds and a silver at Pan Pacs. In Winter 2011, she made the first of several trips to Tasmania to work out with Milt Nelms, the husband of Australia swim legend Shane Gould. Nelms, who has made periodic visits to help the Cal team over the years, does all of his training in the ocean.
"You learn how to be more like a dolphin," says Vollmer. "You learn the feel of the water and how to work with it instead of fighting it. If I'm the anchor leg of a relay and the rest of the field is coming in, the water is choppy. Some people find that nerve-wracking. But I love it. Coming off walls, I've learned to not just go under the wave because it's going to make you have drag, but to use it because it's going to help you come out. Those are the types of things you learn in the ocean."
In Spring 2011 she addressed one remaining health problem. Since her mid-teens she had been beset by periodic stomachaches, a few so severe they landed her in the hospital. In Fall 2010 she had started experiencing debilitating bouts of fatigue as well. Doctors had no explanation for any of it. Vollmer eventually got in touch with former Olympian Anita Nall-Richesson, now a Florida-based holistic nutritionist. Nall-Richesson tested her for food allergies and found an allergy to eggs and sensitivities to gluten, dairy, tomatoes and walnuts.
After making sweeping changes to her diet, Vollmer arrived in Shanghai last summer feeling better than she had in years. And then she ARRIVED, winning gold in the 100 fly in a time of 56.86, just missing the American record of 56.47 she had set in the semifinals.
"I've been on the relays," says Vollmer. "I swam so many events and helped the US in a big way but I was never the lead person. Someone who just swam the 100m fly would beat me in the 100m fly. Or someone who just swam the 200m free would out touch me in the 200m free. It was so frustrating. I love relays and I love giving to the team. But I always wanted to feel like I made it for myself. That 100m fly really did it."
At the Olympic Trials which start on June 25 in Omaha, Neb., Vollmer will swim the 100m fly, the 100m free and the 200m free, which could put her in a position to swim as many as six events in London, including all three relays. She'll likely go up against the 29-year-old Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist and one of Vollmer's role models, in at least the 100m free and the 100m fly.
Though everyone is in a different stage of training right now, beating Coughlin by such a decisive margin in Santa Clara on Friday "means a lot to me, confidence-wise," says Vollmer, who also out touched Coughlin in the 100m free earlier that evening. "And having such confidence now in the 100m fly has really helped my 100m free and 200m free, because I don't put so much pressure on myself."
With all the health problems she had endured, Vollmer had often told herself that 2012 might be the end of her swimming career. Now, she says, "I'm at the top of fly, I'm swimming great, I'm healthy, I'm liking it. Now I can't imagine being done after 2012. Now, finally, I feel like I'm just breaking out."