When former Cal standout Dana Vollmer stepped on to the Olympic podium on Sunday to be presented with a gold medal for winning the women’s 100-meter butterfly, it was the end of a long and difficult journey, but one that she hopes will continue.
A child prodigy, Vollmer was earmarked for greatness even before she reached her teens, and the forecasters looked to have got it exactly right when she won a gold medal in a relay at the 2004 Athens Olympics as a 16-year-old.
But her road to the very top never really went as planned. She suffered an assortment of ailments and a crisis of confidence and her performances started to wane.
Four years ago, she failed to qualify in the American team for the Beijing Olympics and until London, she had never swum an individual event at the games, let alone won one.
“I look back on 2008 and I wasn’t excited to race and compete,” she said after crowning her victory on Sunday by setting a world record. “I was more worried about what happened if I failed, who did I let down, how that would look for [my coach] and my hometown and everyone’s expectations. And I crumbled under that.”
Vollmer’s health problems are almost legendary in the swim world. She suffers from a rare heart condition that accelerates her pulse and still carries a defibrillator with her to the pool, just in case.
But she has had to learn to channel her nervous energy into excitement and turn her pre-race nerves into a source of energy.
“Sports would be boring if you didn’t have that,” she said.
“So it was changing my mental strategy, changing my mental training, it’s been a completely different three years leading up to this.”
The 24-year-old went into Sunday’s final as the overwhelming favorite and did not disappoint, recording a time of 55.98 seconds to eclipse the previous world record of 56.06, held by Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom since 2009.
Elsewhere in swimming, Cameron Van der Burgh also broke the world record, for the 100 breaststroke in 58.46 seconds., to become the first South African man to win individual Olympic swimming gold. Australia’s Christian Sprenger took the silver medal in 58.93 while American Brendan Hansen was third.
Camille Muffat of France fought off a ferocious challenge from American Allison Schmitt to win the women’s 400 freestyle final. Muffat timed her finish to perfection to get her hand on the wall first in 4:01.45 seconds, an Olympic record, while Schmitt was runner-up in 4:01.77.