washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Leagues and Sports > Olympics > 2004 > Sport-by-Sport > Swimming

Vollmer Stays in the Pool No Matter What the Cost

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2004; Page D01

For Dana Vollmer, the rationale is quite plain. Never mind that she is 16, already a veteran of two heart problems, one of which required surgery, or, as she prefers to say, "a procedure." Never mind that when she swims next week in the Olympics, there will be a defibrillator poolside, specifically for her, lest her heart begin to race, or stop, or do something else abnormal. Most would say, "Why swim?" Vollmer's answer, "Because I must."

"I basically said I would rather die swimming," she said, "than not do it at all."


Dana Vollmer, left, and Lindsay Benko finished first and second, respectively, in the 200 freestyle at the U.S. trials last month to earn trips to Athens. (Mike Blake -- Reuters)

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Well, then, there you have it. If she stopped swimming, part of her -- a significant part of her -- would die, so she might as well press forward, because why limit yourself at such a young age? Plus . . .

"I don't think about it," she said. "I really don't."

Vollmer, a blond-haired, broad-shouldered Texas teen, won't be the star of the Olympics. She likely won't win a medal in her lone individual event, the 200-meter freestyle, though she could help the U.S. team to a medal in the 800 freestyle relay. But undoubtedly and unwittingly, she will be one of those Olympic tales of courage that come up during these times, because in the spring of 2003, she felt her heartbeat speed up, and then speed up some more.

This was not good. She couldn't let it be a threat to her swimming. She just couldn't. Her parents figure she must have first mentioned swimming in the Olympics when she was 5 or 6. By 2000, when she was 12, she was the youngest swimmer at the U.S. trials, a girl with no muscle development to speak of, no chance to qualify for the Games, but with talent to be tapped and a world of experience to be gained.

"I might be unqualified [to comment]," said her father, Les. "But I figured if she was in the Olympic trials at 12, she's going to be in the Olympics at 16. I knew her. She had that determination."

Yet who knew she would have to be determined enough to overcome all she has been through since those trials? First came a basketball game, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, and surgery, the perfect way to ruin an Olympic quest.

"That was the worst thing that could happen," said her coach, Ron Forrest of the Fort Worth Area Swim Team. "The knee was a real kick in the stomach."

Yet that little mishap revealed something of Vollmer's character. The ligament was completely ripped off the bone, but she delayed surgery until after swimming in summer nationals, the meet that would allow her to qualify for the Pan American Games in 2003. Occasionally, during workouts, she would have to pull herself from the pool, prop herself up on the deck, and massage the knee. She swam on.

Within days of nationals, she had surgery. The doctors told her it would take six, maybe seven months to fully recover. She and Forrest sat down and planned out a day-by-day strategy, when to get back in the pool, what workouts to do when, how to prepare for the following year -- and her second shot at the trials.

Vollmer took the schedule home, considered it again, and scrapped it completely. Three months after surgery, she was not only swimming, but swimming fast. She was back.

"She had already figured out where she wanted to be and how healthy she wanted to be at certain points, all by herself," Forrest said. "To get ahead of [the doctors'] schedule, and to do everything really on her own timetable, it was pretty amazing for her to be able to get herself back."

Not only that, but because she couldn't kick properly to swim the butterfly -- which involves a motion that puts more pressure on the knee -- she vastly improved her freestyle, building upper body strength like she had never had before.

"I just figured something good could come out of something bad," Vollmer said. "Everything happens for a reason."

Obstacle overcome. Done. Move on.

But then, the heart.

At first, it didn't seem like that big of a deal. Her heart would occasionally race. Give it 10 or 15 minutes, and it would calm down. Yet during dry land training, she became dizzy once, then twice.

"You just think, 'Well, she didn't have enough to eat,' the usual things," said her mother, Cathy. "But we thought, for her peace of mind, we'd go have it checked out. And it led to a major thing."

Swimming, naturally, got her heart rate up to about 180 beats a minute. That's when the problem, an arrhythmia, kicked in. In layman's terms, Les Vollmer said, a human heart is supposed to have one sparkplug, telling it when to beat. Yet when Dana Vollmer's heart reached 180 beats per minute, it reacted as if there were five sparkplugs. Boom, her heart would race. Two hundred, 220 beats a minute.

The solution: Go up through an artery in her leg, reach her heart, and cauterize the four extra sparkplugs. Vollmer's reaction: "I wanted to do it," she said. "I wanted to swim."

Her parents? Well, not so much.

"Here I have a daughter that's experiencing this problem only if she were to achieve a heart rate of 180-plus," Les Vollmer said. "So did she need the procedure at all? No, not for a kid that wasn't at that caliber of sports.

"But that was her life. So we went ahead and did it."

All that would be plenty for one athlete over the span of an entire career, let alone before the career really gets started. Yet at the same time, another problem was identified. Doctors told Vollmer she might suffer from something called Long QT syndrome, an electrical problem in her heart. They ran another set of tests, after her heart surgery, and suspected the same thing, but couldn't be sure.

"I've never absolutely shown the symptoms," Dana Vollmer said. "But they just wanted us to be safe."

Thus, the defibrillator. It has become something of a sideshow, a small red box her parents carry to each meet. When they sit in the stands, Les Vollmer scouts out his quickest route to the water, just in case -- and he is convinced the time will never come -- he needs to scamper from the bleachers and, as he said, "jump in the pool and save her."

For the first meets after heart surgery, after the diagnosis of Long QT, the family was nervous. "The first few months," Cathy said, "I sat real close. I didn't leave the pool. I didn't leave practice. I never walked away.

"But I think we're feeling more comfortable that it's all going to be okay."

By now, Dana is so dismissive of the problem that she refuses to touch the defibrillator. "It's a jinx," Les said.

"It's kind of a thing the doctors have labeled her with," he said. "She doesn't feel there's a problem. She never really did. The one thing she had wrong with her heart was cured, and then this is just a secondary thing that they're saying she needs this [defibrillator]. We kind of just haul it around to satisfy the doctors."

So as she swam faster this spring, as she approached the trials, she challenged her parents. "I told my dad," she said, "that if I made Olympics, I wanted to get a tattoo." The family had never allowed such things before.

But Les Vollmer got to thinking about it. "All right," he said. "And not only that, I'll get one, too, if you make it."

Last week, Les Vollmer got a tattoo on his arm, the five Olympic rings, with a little '04 in the top left ring, small waves on the sides, and "Dana," written in script underneath.

Dana Vollmer's tattoo, likely in the small of her back, may have to come later. She is, after all, just 16. But because she's so young, those Olympic rings could be filled with an '04, an '08, maybe even a '12.

"I don't want people to talk too much about my heart, because I don't think about it," she said. "It's not an issue. I want to just be treated like a normal swimmer, because I am."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company