Published July 23, 2012
Most kids carry a towel, swimsuit and goggles when they go for a swim. Not Dana Vollmer, she brought along a defibrillator.
Vollmer was a 15-year-old sporting prodigy when she noticed something was very wrong. She had gotten out of the pool and yet her heart continued to race. The teen was suffering from what was soon diagnosed as supra ventricular tachycardia, an unsettling and life-threatening condition that can trigger an irregular pulse rate of as high as 240 beats per minute. It can also cause a heart to suddenly stop.
Vollmer underwent surgery, but would scarcely admit there was anything wrong with her. Indeed, eleven days after her procedure she placed fifth in the 100m fly at the 2003 Spring Nationals. But every time she took to the water, her mother Cathy was poolside with the defibrillator, a harrowing reminder that there remained a serious threat to her life. But when asked in a 2004 interview with the Associated Press whether she would consider giving up for the sake of her health, her response was unequivocal, "I would rather die swimming than not do it at all."
Her determination was rewarded spectacularly in Athens 2004 where, at age 16, Vollmer claimed a gold medal as a member of the triumphant U.S. 800m freestyle team, an achievement she says gives her "goosebumps" to this day. Having been the youngest swimmer ever to try out for the U.S. Olympics team at age 12, and having competed at the Goodwill Games at age 13, it seemed this was another chapter in what would be a long and illustrious career.
And yet it hasn't exactly turned out that way. In fact, Vollmer, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., who grew up in Granbury, Texas, came close to abandoning the sport altogether in 2008. She had just failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics following an error-riddled performance later described by Yahoo! Sports as an "exercise in self-destruction." She even made the rookie mistake of flinching on the starting blocks.
But four years later Vollmer has conquered her nerves and earned her place in London where she is given a great chance in the 100m butterfly, having posted a personal record in this year's trials. And coming off the back of a spectacular 2011 in which she won two golds at the World Championships, it seems the stage is set for Vollmer to once more make her way to the Olympic podium.
Having stayed loyal to her sport though adversity and personal anguish, she now hopes it will stay loyal to her.