LONDON -- No matter how hard she tried, no matter how much she squinted, Dana Vollmer couldn't find what she was looking for. For the first time in her life, she stood atop an Olympic podium all by herself, a gold medal around her neck, a world record on the scoreboard. And all she wanted was to find her husband and parents in the stands.
She scanned the crowd above hoping her eyes would connect with theirs. Maybe she could mouth the words, "thank you." She knew she wouldn't be here without them. They had been there. In the moments where she wanted to give up. When she worried she couldn't do it. When she wondered if her stomach pain would ever go away. And when she feared she would never know the feeling of winning individual Olympic gold.
But on this night, there would be no such moment. They were simply too high in the stands, too far away to be reached. So she kept her thoughts in her head.
"I just thought, 'It paid off,'" Vollmer said. "We did it. I made it. I did something no one else has ever done before."
Up in Section 412, Row 52, Seat 133, Andy Grant knew what his wife was doing. And he knew it wasn't going to work. He couldn't stop shaking. A few minutes earlier, when Vollmer became the first woman to touch the wall after a 100-meter butterfly in less than 56 seconds, he lost it. He screamed. He yelled. He threw his arms up in the air. He tweeted how proud he was. And then he pulled out a camera hoping to snap a picture of the scoreboard that shared this good news with the world.
VOLLMER USA :55.98 WR
But it was easier said than done.
"The explosion, the energy all around us, I couldn't take a photo," Grant said. "I was shaking so hard, so bad … just trying to take a photo of the scoreboard."
Grant knew what this moment meant. It wasn't about him. He would have loved her all the same if she had won a gold medal and set a world record or finished last. This was about Vollmer and the work she had put in, the obstacles she had overcome and the fact that he knew she was now going to get the attention she deserved for being one of the top swimmers in the world.
Rebecca Soni. Natalie Coughlin. Dana Vollmer. All in the same group.
"People now talk about Dana Vollmer," Grant said. "And tonight she lived up to those expectations and proved her star status. It was awesome."
Four years ago, when the greatest swimmers in the world gathered in Beijing, Vollmer was nowhere to be found. She was off the coast of Fiji, volunteering and wondering if she ever wanted to swim competitively again. The cuts were still deep from a disappointing performance at Olympic trials, where she had arrived with grand expectations but left without a ticket to Beijing, having finished fifth in the 100 fly, seventh in the 200 free and not even making the finals of the 50 and 100 free. She had put way too much pressure on herself, worrying what failure would mean for everything from her own career to her coach's reputation.
If she couldn't make the Olympics when her days as a student-athlete at Cal were finished, how would she pay the bills? Where would she get health insurance?
"All that pressure to succeed just came to the surface," Grant said.
So while seemingly everyone else was leaving for Beijing, coach Teri McKeever sent Vollmer to Fiji to compete in an open water swim in hopes it would give her mental outlook an adjustment.
"We just felt like we had to get her out of the United States and out of … her own pity party," McKeever said.
It worked. Competing in an 18K relay in the Pacific Ocean reminded Vollmer why she started swimming as a young girl.
"It made me realize that I loved being in the water and I loved swimming," she said. "It made me realize that it was the injuries and the training and the pressure I was putting on myself mentally."
Four years later, she has realized pressure can be a good thing. It can serve as a vehicle to achieving success. Her body has responded, too, staying healthy after a career of back, shoulder and knee injuries. This past year doctors discovered a set of food allergies that had contributed to vicious stomachaches. Now she eats a gluten-free diet -- of which she says there are plenty of options in the Olympic village -- and swims pain free.
It's all come together to result in a woman who used to hate talking about her times spending the past few months telling anyone who will listen that she wanted to be the first woman to go below 56 seconds in the 100-meter fly.
She had felt similarly confident about breaking 50 seconds on a short course and never had reached that mark. So she wondered if she shouldn't have opened her mouth about wanting 55.
"I didn't know if saying it would mean it would be something I'd never see," she said.
At Olympic trials in Omaha last month she came within .42 seconds of the mark. In her preliminary swim here on Saturday she shaved that mark to .25. On Sunday night, before she headed for the ready room, she pulled out her cell phone and thumbed through her Twitter feed, marveling at all the people across the world who were wishing her the best of luck.
"It was just something I really wanted to do," she said.
As she propelled her body through the crashing waves of the final few meters, she had no idea if she had gotten the mark or not. Halfway through the race, one of the two swim caps she wore slipped off. She ignored it. And then she touched the wall, waited a second for her goggles to unfog then looked up at the scoreboard. There was the double nickels she had long waited for.
When she saw the number she smiled.
"It was just absolutely incredible," she said. "And to be there in front of that crowd with my parents and my husband in the stands it's everything I could have dreamed it would have been. It was amazing."
With newfound success is sure to come newfound attention, something that Grant found out after the medal ceremony, when a young boy near the pool deck proposed to his wife. Tweeted Grant: "To the boy who just proposed to my wife on camera: that was super cute and sweet. P.S. I saw where you are sitting. ;-)"
"I took care of him online," Grant said. "It's really cool that she's getting that recognition. She's a beautiful woman. It's OK for her fans to recognize that as long as they equally recognize she's married."