We can’t all do backflips on a beam, or even swim a few strokes of butterfly, but when the Olympics return to NBC, there’s one sport we can all participate in: grumbling over the coverage. In particular, it’s easy to burn out on the soft-focus profiles that treat everything from parental abandonment to a routine injury as an epic struggle that magnifies the athletes’ accomplishments in the Games, and that sometimes interfere with broadcasting the actual competitions in a timely or coherent way.
But if NBC sometimes goes overboard in focusing on the journey rather than the results that define the destination, telling athletes’ personal stories sometimes produces surprising results. Such is the case with Dana Vollmer, the butterflier and six-time Olympic medalist, whose pregnancy was the subject of the NBC profile that aired before her 100-meter butterfly race last night.
“It would be hard to top the London Olympic Games,” Vollmer told NBC of the 2012 Olympics, where she won a gold medal and set a world record in the event. “I was happy with what I had done in the sport, but I was ready to move on from that and kind of look at other dreams.”
But rather than spinning a saccharine narrative of pregnancy, motherhood and having it all, the piece that followed was tart and unexpected.
“I think pregnancy as a whole was just way different than I thought it was going to be,” Vollmer acknowledged, describing her seven and a half weeks of bed rest as “miserable.” For Vollmer, returning to swimming was a response to “those emotions and feeling so out of control with what was going on in my body.”
Such is the cognitive dissonance of the female experience in America that even as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to lock up a major party’s nomination for the presidency, we still have astonishing difficulty discussing pregnancy and childbirth in a sensible and honest way. No matter how disruptive or physically taxing pregnancy is, it’s still supposed to be a luminous experience. Earlier this year, model Chrissy Teigen made headlines for noting that when she left the hospital after delivering her first child, both she and her daughter were wearing diapers.
In this context, the way Vollmer discussed the less-pleasant parts of being pregnant and her relationship with her body after giving birth both defied convention and pushed back at the formula of the Olympic athlete. Pregnancy became just another hurdle to peak athletic conditioning, something Vollmer had to work through and past the way gymnast Gabby Douglas had to deal with a knee injury as she worked to make an Olympic team now dominated by Simone Biles.
Without putting too much weight on a short video profile, it was a relief to see Vollmer tell a story about becoming a parent that allowed for the enterprise to be multiple things at once. Hating being on bed rest doesn’t mean that Vollmer resents her son; in fact, she started teaching him to swim when he was 6 months old, and talked about the peacefulness she hopes he finds in the water. And just because Vollmer had to work hard to be able to complete the event she once dominated doesn’t mean that having a child wasn’t worth it; instead, Vollmer’s son roots for her at the pool and provides a source of joy for her at home, along with her husband.
For all that “having it all” gets presented as a titanic challenge, vastly more women manage to get through motherhood than will ever enter an Olympic swimming pool. Vollmer’s journey back to the medal podium — she’s already picked up two medals at the Rio games — is a super-charged version of that particular modern dilemma. But her frankness about pregnancy and motherhood, and her ability to acknowledge both frustration and joy without letting the former eclipse the latter, are a winning combination all of us can aspire to.