- Wayne Drehs
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OMAHA, Neb. -- Just in case. Just in case it all went to plan and his wife put four years of frustration behind her and punched her ticket to London here Tuesday night, Andy Grant was ready.
For the past few years, Grant and his wife, Dana Vollmer, the American record holder in the 100-meter butterfly, had wagered on many of her swims, with Grant promising his wife everything from a pair of sunglasses to a picnic in the park if she won a particular race, often the 100 fly.
On Tuesday, though, there were specific instructions. No bets. No incentives. No talking about swimming. Vollmer, who four years ago crumbled under the cauldron of pressure and missed qualifying for the U.S. team by three-tenths of a second, had other plans. She would swim her race, make or miss the U.S. team, and that would be that.
It hadn't been easy coming back to the spot of her epic failure in 2008, when she arrived in Omaha with lofty expectations but finished fifth in the 100 fly, seventh in the 200 free and didn't even make the finals of the 500 and 100 free. Over the weekend, she and a teammate jumped around and did handstands in the water in hopes of relieving the tension in surroundings that were an exact replica from her worst nightmare.
But despite his wife's instructions, Grant had other ideas. After Vollmer won the 100 fly final in 56.50 seconds Tuesday, after she stood under the spotlights and in front of the cameras and answered the questions about her return to glory, after she changed from her competition suit to her regular suit and headed for the warm-down pool, Grant handed her a gold charm, with the Olympic rings on it.
"I told her, 'I know I wasn't supposed to plan for the future, but just in case you made the Olympic team, I got this for you,'" Grant said. "'Just in case.'"
On this night, there would be no collapse. There would be no failure. Only the redemption of a resilient 24-year-old woman. The fact that she had made the team wasn't much of a stunner. Her Monday qualifying time (56.42) was an American record and the fastest in the world this year. She's without question one of the American favorites to medal in London.
What was crazy is how she got here. Vollmer had made her first splash at Olympic trials in 2000 when she was just 12. Four years later at the 2004 Athens Olympics, she was part of a U.S. relay team that set the world record in the 4x200 freestyle relay. But the path has been a bumpy one. ACL surgery on her knee. Recurring tendinitis in her shoulder. Back injuries that would force her into bed for a week. And stomach aches that come in flashes one after another. Because her body was always broken down, she never felt comfortable telling anyone about her stomach issues. After a weekend off, she would feel fine on Monday and maybe Tuesday morning. But by Tuesday afternoon, the pain would return.
"And I never thought I could say, 'Coach, I have a tummy ache,'" Vollmer said.
She finally spoke up in the spring of 2011, prior to world championships, when it was discovered she had a food allergy. Gluten and eggs were removed from her diet. Almost instantly, she felt better. With her body in top form, her confidence soared; as did her relationship with Grant, who she started dating in 2008. Before she knew it, she realized there was more to life than touching the wall first. And she discovered how to relax. She and Grant were married last year.
"It's just maturing and finding a perspective," said her coach, Teri McKeever. "She is married now and life is fuller, and I think that keeps it in perspective. That has really helped her be more comfortable in her own skin and to know she can deal with whatever is going to happen."
The ultimate result of all that change -- the new diet, marriage, newfound confidence and addition of a 10-month bulldog named Mallie, whom Grant says is her sidekick -- were on display Tuesday night. And Vollmer has every intention to swim faster next month in London. Her goal is to break 56 seconds, which would give her the world record.
"When she said she wanted to go 55, I was like, 'Do you have any idea how fast that is?'" Grant said. "But then she goes like 56.5 three times this week and it's like, 'Yeah, I guess she does know how fast that is.'"
Now when she swims, she repeats a singular word in her head over and over and over. For now, that word is "forward." Every movement, every thought, every twitch is aimed at propelling her body to the next spot in the water.
"Knowing in 2008 that I missed by three-hundredths of a second, that's one harder kick," she said. "So it's 'forward.' Don't let yourself have one easier kick because that could be the difference."
She didn't need that extra kick to hold off Claire Donahue, who finished more than a second behind her. Afterward, she described her emotions as "relieved." Grant felt the same. Making the team in the 100 fly, her best event, should ease the tension for the 200 freestyle on Wednesday and 100 freestyle later this week.
"I think I'm still in shock," Vollmer said. "I know I have the 200 free and that's how my mind goes -- just focus on what I have to do next."
But there will be at least a little time to enjoy this. On Tuesday, when her night was finally over and her media responsibilities were finished, Vollmer reunited with her husband in the bowels of CenturyLink Center and looked up at him with a glow. He was in the middle of telling someone that the two of them hadn't made a wager on Tuesday night's race. And then he proposed one.
"I know," he said with a grin. "How about if you make the team, I'll fly to London?"
"Sounds good," Vollmer said.
It wasn't easy for Dana Vollmer to return to the scene of one of the biggest disappointments of her career. But the swimmer was able to put 2008 behind her after earning an Olympic berth at trials.