OMAHA, Neb. -- The CenturyLink Center, a comfortable modern basketball arena morphed into a temporary natatorium for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic swimming trials, doesn't look like a house of horrors. But four years ago, Dana Vollmer walked away from the venue absolutely shattered, having failed to make the team in any of the four events she swam.
When the 24-year-old returned this week, she was shocked that the facility looked exactly as it had in 2008. Feeling unwanted memories start to gather, she decided to "unintensify" the pool. She did jumps and underwater swims in the competition pool; she did a couple of handstands in the practice pool. She and her coach, Teri McKeever, walked around the building pretending that they had never seen it before. But all the ghost-busting was probably unnecessary. This facility may look the same, but Vollmer the swimmer is in a very different place.
She made that clear Tuesday night when she blew away the field in the 100 butterfly final, touching first in 56.50, more than a second ahead of second-place finisher Claire Donahue. Though Vollmer fell short of the 55-second mark -- the would-be world record -- she had talked about the last few days, she knew times weren't what mattered here.
"I don't think I can be disappointed right now," she said. "I wanted to get on the team, and I'm really relieved I did that. I'm so excited to get to do it in London."
After the debacle of 2008, Vollmer addressed some nagging health issues -- including shoulder and back problems and a few long undiagnosed food allergies -- and made success in the 100 butterfly, her favorite race, the centerpiece of her training. She got married. She traveled a handful of times to Tasmania to train in the ocean waves with stroke technician Milt Helms, and in the pool at Cal-Berkeley, she hewed mostly to a middle-distance training agenda that helped both her 200 freestyle and the back half of her 100 fly. And she learned that she doesn't have to do "anything crazy or spectacular" to accomplish her goal: in this case, to make the Olympic team. She just had to touch the wall first.
Brendan Hansen, a two-time Olympian and four-time Olympic medalist (two relay golds, and a silver and bronze) in the breaststroke, had a similar epiphany in the four years since he left Omaha feeling disappointed and burned out. At trials he had won the 100 breast, but in the 200, an event he considered his "baby," he faded badly on the last leg and finished fourth behind two of his training partners from Texas, Scott Spann and Eric Shanteau. His disappointment didn't end there. In Beijing, he came in fourth in the 100 breast, his only race aside from the medley relay. On Saturday in Omaha he recounted how, warming down from that event, he had to keep emptying his Swedish goggles "not because they were filling up with water, because they were filling up with tears," he said. "I knew it was over, knew that the whole experience, the whole career and everything was over."
And it was, for a few years. Hansen returned to Austin, married his college sweetheart, Martha, got a job and started doing triathlons, thereby morphing into "a weekend warrior like everybody else," he said. But of course he wasn't like everyone else. Retired or not, he was still an Olympic-level athlete, and a former world-record holder to boot. And guess what? He found he still loved competing. He started swimming a bit more and, in January 2011, he had lunch with his former coach, Eddie Reese, who helped him launch a plan for a comeback.
"Since that point I feel like this has been predetermined and I'm along for the ride," he said Saturday.
Maybe that's why Hansen said he was more relieved than happy after he swam a 59.68 to beat runner-up Shanteau by nearly a second in the 100 breaststroke final Tuesday night.
"I went in there and did what I thought I could do," he said.
But Hansen did embrace the moment in a way he never would have at past trials. Having watched other newly minted Olympians stand at attention, riding a platform rising up to the pool deck and 11,000 cheering fans, Hansen decided to do something no one would expect of him.
"I'm not the flashy guy on the team, I don't have a grill in my mouth, I don't have eight gold medals," he said.
So, as he had promised his Texas training partners, he knelt down on the platform with a sweatshirt hoodie over his head -- "like some WWF wrestler" he said -- and both arms extended in a "Hook 'em Horns" salute.
"I don't know what it looked like when I came up, but it got a good rise out of the crowd," he said. "It was fun. It's the stuff I will remember for a long time and one of the reasons I'm back. I want to enjoy every minute of this."
So does Vollmer. It turns out the CenturyLink Center isn't exactly the same as it was four years ago. This time Vollmer is one of the marquee swimmers whose pictures are on the door to the arena. On her to-do list is getting a picture of herself with the picture of herself. This year she is going to have some memories worth keeping.