Ann Killion
Sunday July 29th, 2012

LONDON -- Don't ask Dana Vollmer about how the 100-meter butterfly final went four years ago in Beijing, a race won by Australia's Libby Trickett.

Vollmer wasn't even paying attention.

She was in Fiji, learning how to swim again.

In truth, Vollmer, who grew up in the pool, qualified for the Olympic Trials when she was 12 and won a relay gold medal at the Athens Olympics, always knew how to swim. She had just forgotten why she was swimming. The pressure and stress she heaped onto her frequently fallible body heading into the 2008 trials was too much.

"I crumbled," she said. "But in Fiji, I got to do an open-water race for first time ever and it made me realize I loved being in the water and I loved swimming."

Fast-forward four years to Sunday night: Vollmer won the gold medal in the 100 butterfly and broke the world record, becoming the first woman to swim a sub-56 second 100, winning in 55.98 seconds.

It capped a tumultuous road from heartbreak -- Vollmer failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics -- to the top step of the medal podium.

"It's been a journey," said U.S. coach Teri McKeever. "She's really grown a lot."

McKeever has been at Vollmer's side for most of the journey. The Granbury, Texas, native originally enrolled at Florida but transferred to McKeever's program at Cal in 2006. Plagued by health issues throughout her career -- a shoulder injury, a back injury and an irregular heartbeat that caused her mother to carry a defibrillator to the Athens Olympics --Vollmer flourished under McKeever's unconventional training techniques that de-emphasize yardage.

But in 2008, Vollmer couldn't handle the stress of being a favorite.

"With the injuries and training and all the pressure I was putting on myself mentally -- I wasn't excited to race," she said. "I was more worried about what happened if I failed and who did I let down and how that would look for Teri and my hometown. ... Now I take those expectations as excitement and energy.

"I decided that I did love the sport."

After the disastrous 2008 trials, McKeever connected with Australian coach Milt Nelms and his wife former Australian swimmer Shane Gould and arranged for Vollmer to head to Fiji, where she swam with dolphins and helped teach local children how to swim.

"We felt like she needed to get out of the United States and out of her own pity party," McKeever said.

Though Vollmer says she wasn't sure she wanted to compete any more, McKeever was never worried because Vollmer had one more year of college eligibility left.

"There was no way she was going to walk out on the collegiate experience and the commitment to team members," McKeever said. "It wasn't about her. And she helped our program get to a place it had never been."

Riding Vollmer's talent, Cal won its first NCAA national championship the next spring. And by that time, Vollmer was fully back on board with her swimming career, though there were a few bumps along the way, like being diagnosed with a food allergy.

"In my experience, extraordinary people are like thoroughbreds," McKeever said. "Not workhorses."

But Vollmer -- who has gotten married in the past year -- has learned to handle her aches and pains better than she did in the past. For instance, on the first day of trials in June, she woke up with a sore throat that was diagnosed as strep. Rather than panic, she thought back to what McKeever had said to her several months before when she hadn't felt well: "What are you going to do if you don't feel well on June 25?"

"She's learned how to take whatever life is giving her and to know that she can deal with it," McKeever said.

Both McKeever and Vollmer knew a world record was possible on Sunday. Vollmer stayed even with the field and then pulled away in the final 50.

"That was my strategy tonight: be confident in the first 50, get that fast easy speed and then use my strength -- which is the second 50 -- coming home," she said.

When she touched the wall, the red light went off and the clock froze at 55.98.

Vollmer had a world record and a gold medal. But her journey isn't done.

" I know I can go faster," she said.

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