August 07, 2015

SAN ANTONIO (AP) Dana Vollmer is back at the pool, hoping to compete at another Olympics and reclaim her world record.

You know, normal stuff for an athlete who's been on top of the game.

Only now, she's taking someone else along for the ride.

A son named Arlen.

''Breastfeeding,'' she said, breaking into an enormous if somewhat weary smile that any new mother can appreciate. ''I never thought I'd have to put that in my pre-race routine.''

Five months after having her first child, Vollmer competed this week at the U.S. national championships in San Antonio.

Talk about a role model for any parent trying to balance work and family.

Vollmer is showing you can have it all - as long as you don't expect more than a few hours of sleep.

Just listen to her schedule on the day of her lone event, the 100-meter butterfly, when qualified in the morning preliminaries, turned in a fourth-place finish in the evening final, and never lost sight of the fact that Arlen is always her top priority.

''I got up at 5:30 in the morning. I have to leave a lot more time because nursing can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. That's the big unknown sometimes. Then there's pumping after that. Then I ate breakfast. Then I'm driving to the pool. I race (in the prelims), then I warm down. Then I fed him. Then I went to lunch. Then we got back to the hotel and I fed him again. Then I was able to sleep for two hours. ... That was really nice. My husband took Arlen around the hotel a little bit. Then he wakes me up and I nurse Arlen again. Then I got my bag together. I kind of stretched, then ate another sandwich. Then I nursed him again before we left. Then I came to the pool and got ready to swim. I didn't nurse him before I raced. I didn't leave enough time. It's just one of those things where we just kind of make it work.

''I'm sure,'' Vollmer added, just minutes after climbing from the water, ''he's waiting for me now and wants to be fed.''

So off she went, wading through dozens of swimmers crowding on the deck, looking for Arlen and her husband, former Stanford swimmer Andy Grant.

''We're trying to show that you can start a life and come back and do (swimming) pretty well,'' Grant would say a few minutes later, after passing off Arlen to his wife and snapping a few pictures with the pool and a national championships banner providing the background. ''She's putting a new definition on working mom.''

More and more, female athletes are realizing they don't have to make a choice between the two most passionate things in their lives.

Dara Torres won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after having her daughter. Alysia Montano was eight months pregnant when she competed at the U.S. track championships in 2014, and she returned last month as a mother to win two medals at the Pan American Games. Sheryl Swoopes had a son before putting together one of the greatest careers in WNBA history.

Still, women must deal with a predicament that would never occur to one of their male counterparts wanting to start a family.

Can I be at my best as both a mother and an athlete?

''You've got to find that balance, but it's hard when you have a child,'' Torres said. ''When you go to work, the guilt kicks in. You have to be OK with that. You have to know they're so young, they're not going to remember a lot of stuff. But you also want to be there in a way they do remember.

''I really had to take a deep breath,'' she remembered, ''and say to myself, `It's OK. There's working parents out there that do this. They go back to their 9-to-5 jobs, they go back to something they enjoy doing.' You've got to know it's OK to still be a great parent and do what you love to do.''

Vollmer was sure she was done swimming after the world championships two summers ago in Barcelona, where she was hampered by a shoulder injury. There wasn't a whole lot left to accomplish, considering she won a gold medal and set a world record in her signature event at the 2012 London Olympics.

But she never signed her retirement papers, and suddenly got an urge to resume swimming when she was just weeks away from delivering Arlen.

''I don't know if that was because I was eight months pregnant and missed my body,'' she quipped.

Whatever the case, Vollmer returned to practice with the Cal swim team two months after Arlen was born. She and her husband were lucky enough to be able to afford a nanny, but Vollmer made it clear she was not going to let someone else raise her child while she spent all day at the pool. She was especially adamant about breastfeeding, so her son attends all of her workouts and training sessions.

''I want to be there for this stage of my son's life,'' she said.

Vollmer is also passionate about swimming. She's only 27 in a sport where it's become increasingly common for the top athletes to swim well into their 30s. She's highly motivated after Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom snatched away her world record just a few days ago at the world championships in Kazan, Russia.

''You see your record fall,'' Vollmer said, ''and it kind of makes you think, `Aww, should I have stayed in it? Could I have lowered it myself?'''

That feeling never lasts very long.

Not with Arlen in her arms.

''Then,'' Vollmer said, ''I realize just how happy I am now.''

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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