OMAHA, Neb. – When Dana Vollmer returned to the scene of her disaster, the impact on her psyche was palpable.
“Walking in was like hitting a brick wall,” she said.
The place was here, the CenturyLink Center, site of the 2008 Olympic Swim Trials that Vollmer turned into an exercise in self-destruction. A 2004 Olympian expected to have a big presence in Beijing in 2008, Vollmer instead whiffed. She finished fifth in the 100-meter butterfly, seventh in the 200 freestyle and didn’t even make the finals of the 50 and 100 free.
She even flinched on the starting block at the beginning of one race, a mistake normally made by nerve-addled rookies.
The feeling she had that miserable, pressurized week: “Doom.”
So coming back to the pool that bedeviled her, Vollmer and her coach, California’s Teri McKeever, basically performed an exorcism on the place. They walked around it like they’d never been here before, getting introduced to it for the first time. When it was time to get in the water, Vollmer opted to “un-intensify the pool” by doing some off-the-wall stuff first: underwater swims, jumps, even some handstands in the warm-up pool with a teammate.
“I was realizing and telling myself I am in such a different place now, and when I think about myself and how I feel in the water, I was confident in what I could do," Vollmer said. "I just had to keep my mind off of how I felt in 2008 and just focus on where I am now.”
Where she is now is booked for London. Tuesday night, Vollmer completed her Omaha exorcism with an emphatic victory in the 100 fly. After a confidence-building American record swim in the event in the semifinals Monday, Vollmer missed that mark by just .08 Tuesday in winning by the chasm of 1.07 seconds over Claire Donahue of Western Kentucky University.
Some of the best stories in sports are about athletes who can conquer their own failures instead of repeating them. Vollmer wrote a powerful chapter in that genre Tuesday, vaulting from doom to dominance.
“Just as soon as I was in the water I was excited and felt more in control of that race than I think any of my 100 fly swims,” Vollmer said.
[ Photos: U.S. Olympic swim trials ]
It was a long quest to regain control of a career that had been fast-tracked since 2000, with plenty of both glory and hardship along the way.
She was a prodigy who made the Olympic Trials at age 12, then endured physical problems over the years. There was a knee injury, a shoulder injury, a back injury. Vollmer also had an elevated pulse rate that necessitated heart surgery in 2003, but she recovered and made the U.S. team for the Athens Games and won a gold medal as part of the 800 freestyle relay.
That was a stress-free Olympic run as a 16-year-old underdog of sorts. With the expectations much higher in 2008, she felt the weight and buckled under it. One bad swim snowballed into two, then three, then four. She was a high-profile victim of the cruelest sporting event in the world, where withering pressure is literally in the water.
After that disappointment, Vollmer made a concerted effort to rejigger her mental outlook. She tried to get back to swimming for fun, like the 12-year-old who suddenly showed up on the national scene. The 24-year-old got married, which helped lend balance to her life. She’s taken up woodworking as well.
Combine that with her prodigious physical talent, and Vollmer emerged as one of the potential stars of these Trials. But first she had to stare down the building.
One thing made it easier: the sight of her picture on the doors to the place, alongside household names like Phelps, Lochte and Coughlin. That was a sign that Vollmer had arrived on the marquee level.
“That's the first time I've ever made it on the door,” she said with a laugh. “So I still want to take a picture with that.”
There is more work to do first. Vollmer will swim the 200 freestyle Wednesday, and also is entered in the 50 and 100 freestyles and the 200 fly. She may not swim all of those or make the team in all of them, but she’s also a prohibitive favorite to be on the two American freestyle relays.
But the 100 fly has been her baby, and acing it made for the perfect start to the meet.
“I feel like I'm finally making a name for myself in the 100 fly and just making a statement that I don't plan to get beat in that event,” Vollmer said. “And bringing that to London.”
The first step to London was bringing that attitude back here, to the pool that haunted her four years ago. Omaha has been exorcised for Dana Vollmer.
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