LONDON – Dana Vollmer was in the pool. Her coach Teri McKeever was watching on the TV screen.
“I thought there was a world record there,” McKeever said.
And she was right. Vollmer, who swam for McKeever at Cal, won the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly on Sunday night and set a world record. In the process, Vollmer became the first woman to break 56 seconds in the event: her winning time was 55.98.
Vollmer had set the goal for herself publicly.
“That made it part of the excitement – touching the wall and realizing that I had it,” she said. “I really liked the support I got from everyone checking my Twitter. It was something I really wanted to do. I felt more confident in myself and my abilities this time around to be able to say that.”
Last time around – at the Beijing Olympics – Vollmer wasn’t even there. Though she had been a rising star in Athens in 2004, she didn’t qualify at the 2008 trials, succumbing to the immense pressure she put on herself.
“I look back at 2008 and I wasn’t excited to compete,” she said. “I was more worried about what happened if I failed and who I let down, and how did it look for Teri and my hometown. I was worried about expectations. I crumbled under that. I couldn’t take all that on.”
McKeever, intent on having Vollmer avoid “a pity party,” arranged for her to go to Fiji during the Beijing Olympics. There, Vollmer worked with legendary Australian coach Milt Nelms and his wife, former Australian swimmer Shane Gould. She swam with the dolphins, taught local children to swim, did an open-water swim and rediscovered her love of the sport.
“I decided that I did love the sport and I loved competing,” Vollmer said.
McKeever was never really worried that Vollmer was going to walk away. Vollmer still had one more year of eligibility at Cal, and McKeever knew that being part of a team and being part of something bigger than herself would be a huge step in the healing process.
Vollmer, a Texas native, transferred to Cal in 2006 from Florida, where she had spent her freshman year. Her body had begun to break down from the relentless quest for yardage in training and she thrived under McKeever’s unconventional training techniques in Berkeley.
The spring after her Olympic disappointment, Vollmer’s Bears won their first NCAA Championship.
“We were riding on her back,” McKeever said.
She was back and fully committed. In the past four years, Vollmer has remade herself, changing her training, her diet and her mental attitude. Now she turns the expectations into excitement. From a heavy brake into a kind of fuel.
“The fact that I’m nervous before a race is a great thing,” she said. “A teammate told me that sports would be boring if you didn’t have that level of anxiousness, excitement.
“It’s been a completely different three years leading up to this.”
And the reward was hanging around her neck. And frozen on the clock.