By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Before she even opened the doors – doors that had her picture on them for the first time as one of the stars of the meet – to Omaha’s CenturyLink Center for the start of Olympic Swim Trials last month, Dana Vollmer felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
While she expected the layout and look of the competition pool, warm up pool, swimmer’s warm down and massage stations to be similar to 2008, she was surprised to walk into the building and find everything nearly identical to four years ago.
It was a reality she had to deal with quickly, and once she did, she said she felt she could move forward with her races and goal of making a second Olympic team. Easier said than done when you are revisiting a site that held so many bad memories – memories she thought she had put behind her.
“It was quite daunting – everything looks so close to how it was in 2008 that it took me aback a bit at first,” Vollmer said last month in Omaha. “The first time I stepped on the blocks for practice, I was really nervous because all of those memories rushed back.”
Those memories Vollmer is referring to kept the 2011 100 butterfly world champion from making her second Olympic Team. A gold medalist as a member of the world-record-setting U.S. 800 freestyle relay in Athens, Vollmer came up short in all four of her events – coming closest with a fifth-place finish in the 100 fly.
When it was time to get in the water at Trials, she and her coach made it a point to do some unconventional activities first – underwater swims, jumps, even some handstands in the warm-up pool – all with the intent of reaffirming that this wasn’t the same pool and Vollmer wasn’t the same swimmer or person as four years ago.
And it worked. This time around – and boosted by her world title last summer in Shanghai – Vollmer left nothing to chance. She went out strong in preliminaries, semifinals and finals – never losing a race or really being challenged – to win the 100 fly and set a new American record in the process.
When she takes to the water in London Saturday for the first of what should be three swims culminating in Sunday night’s final in the 100 butterfly, Vollmer will be fulfilling her destiny. She will also contribute as the fly leg of the 400 medley relay and 800 freestyle relay.
“I never twitched on the blocks (at Trials) like I did in 2008, and I felt more in control of that race (100 fly) than any other – even more than at Worlds last year,” Vollmer said. “I’ve spent the past four years trying to get back here (Trials) – building my confidence and getting healthy. So many things in my life have changed (since 2008), that I now can look back and reflect on how far I’ve come.”
In many ways, what Vollmer has accomplished in the water has been more miracle than mission. A cluster of injuries over the years – including an ACL tear and debilitating back injury that made it difficult to get out of bed and required cortisone injections – made training, let alone competing, painful and difficult.
A fast heartbeat necessitated a cardiac ablation to correct an electrical dysfunction in 2003. She also suffered from stomach pains for many years, originally thinking she was lactose intolerant and cut out dairy products from her diet, until she discovered last year a few months before world championships that she has an allergy to eggs.
“I always thought my stomach aches were the results of nerves, but it was something bigger than that,” Vollmer said. “I had had these injuries and standing up behind the blocks, I was absolutely a nervous wreck. Once we figured out what the problem was, it made a world of difference for me. I was able to train more and felt so much better physically. It affected everything about my outlook about life and swimming.”
With those problems behind her and her focus squarely on winning gold in the 100 fly – where she is the favorite and should challenge the American and world records – this weekend in London, Vollmer is at peace and very happy with her life and her swimming.
She’s the first to admit it’s been a tumultuous journey – but it’s a journey that has given her new perspective about how important swimming is in her life.
“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," said Vollmer, who also got married since 2008 Trials.
"I just had to keep my mind off of how I felt in 2008 and just focus on where I am now. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and I’ve really never been happier or more content.”