DANVILLE, Calif. -- The sun has yet to rise. Not for another couple of hours will it crest above the rolling hills of this Bay Area suburb and unofficially begin this early February morning. But Olympic champion Dana Vollmer can't afford to wait for daylight. So in this middle-of-the-night darkness she climbs into her SUV, throws her swim bag into the back seat and heads toward UC Berkeley's Spieker Aquatics Complex to pursue a goal no American swimmer has ever achieved: to win an Olympic gold after giving birth.
Left at home in the bedrooms upstairs is her son Arlen, 11 months old at the time. Arlen was the reason she was doing all this, again pushing her body to limits few would dream possible for a new mother. Arlen used to come along on these early morning training sessions, with Vollmer breastfeeding him before, after and sometimes even during swim practice. But a few months earlier the breastfeeding had stopped. And the boy's pediatrician looked at his erratic sleep schedule and suggested, "Maybe you don't wake him up at 4:30 to take him to workouts with you anymore." Vollmer understood, not that it made leaving her son behind any easier.
Vollmer won three gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first woman to crack 56 seconds in the 100 fly. She retired after finishing fourth at World Championships a year later. But after doctors put her on bed rest in the eighth month of pregnancy in early 2015, everything changed. Frustrated by boredom, a desire to get back in shape and missing her teammates and competition, she set her sights on the Rio Olympics (Aug. 5-21). The 28-year-old knew the odds would be against her -- transforming her body from giving birth to a world-class swimmer in 15 months wouldn't be easy. There were doubters who told her it couldn't be done. That fueled her even more. "I like when people tell me I can't do something," she says.
She vowed she would return to the pool with Arlen by her side. She wanted to show how powerful mothers could be. And prove that becoming a parent didn't mean giving up your life. It was possible to do both.
It hasn't been easy. The pain. The tears. The sleepless nights. But on June 27 Vollmer will swim the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, with the goal of proving all her doubters wrong. The top two finishers make the U.S. team. Dara Torres is the only American swimmer to ever make an Olympic team and win a medal after giving birth. No American swimmer has ever won gold.
Vollmer currently has the fastest American time and fifth-fastest in the world in the 100 fly this year. "I have no doubt that I can get back to where I was," says Vollmer. "Can I do it by August? I don't know. But I'm sure as hell going to try. Go big or go home -- that's what I've been telling myself the entire time."
AT 6 O'CLOCK on that February morning, the campus of Cal-Berkeley sat eerily still. There were no students on the sidewalks or cars on the road. Parking spots that in a few hours would be fiercely fought over were readily available. And on the campus' south side, a tower of fluorescent lights illuminated the Spieker complex, where a fog wistfully rose from the water that had yet to be disturbed. Vollmer stepped onto the pool deck with a handful of other Olympic hopefuls, pulled her silver Cal cap over her head, smiled and dove in. A few feet away, her name sat forever etched into the wall as one of the most decorated swimmers at Cal, where she swam collegiately from 2007 to 2009 and then for the post-grad team thereafter.
It was here, in November of 2013, where she made the difficult decision to walk away from swimming. For years she had wrestled with nerves and anxiety and had often felt as though she had been swimming more for others than herself; her talent was a gift she felt obligated not to waste. After making the 2004 Olympic team as a 16-year-old, she shockingly missed the 2008 Beijing team and nearly walked away then. Instead, in London it all came together. She learned to trust coach Teri McKeever and embrace her nerves. The result was three gold medals and a world record.
But after World Championships a year later she felt it was time to retire. She wrestled with the finality of the decision for weeks, starting, stopping, then restarting her retirement email to McKeever, all while continuing to go to practice. The two had known each other since Vollmer transferred to Cal for her sophomore year of college in 2007. Their relationship evolving from top-down to mutual respect and admiration. They considered each other friends. Then one night Vollmer pressed send on her email. The next day she met with McKeever in person. The coach told Vollmer she understood the decision and insisted the door would be open if she ever changed her mind. McKeever suggested she tell her teammates as soon as possible. She also urged Vollmer not to sign the official papers that would have taken her out of the drug testing program and complicate any potential comeback in the event that she changed her mind.
Later that day, McKeever's swimmers were coming out of the weight room when the coach asked them to take a seat. Vollmer had something she wanted to say. She stepped forward and said one word: "Hi." Then she began to bawl.
"I couldn't get another word out," she says. "I still don't know how I told them. Here I am trying to explain how happy I am about this decision even though it might not exactly look that way."
That night brought a sense of relief. And uncertainty. It was weird to not set an alarm to get up for training the next day. But Vollmer had never defined herself as a swimmer and now could do all the things she had long talked about, like attend classes in architecture and interior design. She could take yoga and participate in spin classes. She and her husband, Andy Grant, decided the time would be right to start a family. In June of 2014 they became pregnant.
"It was just like, 'OK, I guess this is happening,'" she says.
Eight months into a complicated pregnancy doctors put Vollmer on bed rest. She hated not being able to move. And she missed the pool. So she reached out to McKeever about a comeback. The coach wasn't surprised. "I knew she could still do this," McKeever says. In her 39th week of pregnancy, Vollmer was removed from bed rest. She returned to the water for the first time at a community pool. She hated it.
"My mom loved being in the water when she was pregnant -- I couldn't stand it," she says. "I'm used to feeling a certain way in the water. And it was like I had this boulder hanging from my back." So Vollmer's husband, a former swimmer at Stanford, held Vollmer's feet and kicked for her. "He was the legs," she says. "And that was the only way I felt fast in the water. It was awful. I couldn't move."
In the days and weeks after Arlen was born, Vollmer tightened her stomach when she was sitting or in bed. She attended a boot camp for new mothers. And she continued to swim on her own. Seven weeks after Arlen was born she returned to Cal for her first workout. "I had Arlen and our nanny and my stroller and all this stuff," she says. "I did not travel lightly. I was super mom."
McKeever expected as much and told Vollmer they would do whatever she could to accommodate her. In the beginning, Vollmer would feed Arlen, try to swim as long as she could and then hop out, head into the locker room and feed him again. "It was a little bit like, 'Hi, freshman, I'm going to sit in the locker room and nurse my child," Vollmer says. "Welcome to college."
Equally challenging was accepting a body that she had never swam with before. "I didn't want to put my suit on and go out there at first," she says. "I felt so odd in my skin. I just never thought I would be back in a swimsuit post-baby with these insanely in-shape girls. But I realized that nobody cared. They were happy I was there. That insecurity was all coming from me."
In the beginning the goals were simple. Make it 45 straight minutes. Then an hour. Finish an entire practice. Do that twice in a week. It wasn't easy. "During one workout I did like a 200 and stopped and was like, 'My body is huge, my arms are toothpicks. I can't pull through the water,'" she says. "And my major thing is I love pulling. It was hard."
One day an assistant coach asked her how her body was holding up. "I just chuckled," Vollmer said. "It was like I had been run over by a truck."
But at the same time, her work was inspiring to McKeever and the other swimmers. And Vollmer couldn't have been happier. She was here because she wanted to be. And there was no pressure to live up to any outside expectations. Just do the best she could do each day and then try again tomorrow.
"It wasn't my mom telling me to go to practice. It wasn't what I felt I owed the team or my coaches. It was my decision," she says. "My schedule that worked for me and Arlen."
McKeever says: "She was like a different Dana. Calmer, more grounded. Eventually, with time, it started to feel normal for her again."
THERE'S SOMETHING MAGICAL about owning a world record and introducing yourself as an individual who has performed a particular task faster than anyone else in the history of the world. Vollmer's world record swim in the 100 fly in London was her career defining moment. Every practice, every dryland session, it had all paid off in those 55.98 seconds. So last summer, when Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom began inching closer to breaking the mark, Vollmer thought she was prepared. She and Sjostrom were friends, and she was thrilled that the Swede had overcome a disappointing performance in London to push the boundaries of what was possible in the 100 fly.
But when Grant called one morning last August to tell Vollmer that Sjostrom had broken the record swimming (:55.74), Vollmer collapsed in tears.
"I had been so cool about it the week before. 'She's gonna get it, gonna get it.' Then when it happened, it just caught me so off guard," Vollmer says. "It was one of those things I had worked for so long to get. It was sad. It was hard to see that go. And I didn't know if I could get it back."
Vollmer tweeted congratulations to Sjostrom. Then she got back to work. Less than a week later, she found herself on the starting blocks in San Antonio for the U.S. Nationals, the first major meet of her comeback. She had dreamt about this moment during pregnancy -- and finally it was here. Nothing like she had imagined. Arlen was still breastfeeding at the time, so he and Grant, along with Vollmer's nanny, had come along for the trip. Vollmer would feed Arlen in the car when they arrived at the pool, again in the locker room when getting her race suit on and then again after warm down following each race. Between those moments, the little one hung out with his dad and the other Cal swimmers. "I remember getting some looks like, 'Really? Is she doing that and then she's going to race?'"
Vollmer finished fourth in San Antonio, but the meet was about far more than the results. It was the first time in her comeback that she had swam a prelim in the morning followed by a final the same night. "I was just excited that day that I didn't die," she jokes.
McKeever had long viewed Vollmer as a Ferrari of sorts, an elite racing machine that needed the proper fine-tuning and care to reach maximum performance. And slowly, week by week, month by month, that began falling into place.
"Some swimmers are VWs. You can ride them as long as you want and it's fine," McKeever said in February. "You need to be more careful with Dana. After having a baby, she looks as good as ever. She just needed a little more time getting fit. Now it finally feels like, 'OK, my body is back.' As opposed to dealing with having a chest when you didn't have one before."
Five months after San Antonio, at a Grand Prix meet in Austin, Texas, Grant and Arlen watched from the stands as Vollmer found herself in the final for the 100 fly. In the lane next to her was Sjostrom. Vollmer told herself that she had to be ahead of her at the turn -- and she was, by one-one hundredth of a second. But that's when the Swede executed a flawless turn, Vollmer struggled and on the back half of the race Sjostrom passed Vollmer, winning by 1.23 seconds.
The next time they could possibly meet is in Rio, where Sjostrom will be the unquestioned favorite. Her March time of :55.68 is the fastest in the world this year by more than a second.
"Do I want to beat her? Absolutely," Vollmer says. "Do I know if I can get down to a 55? I have no idea. But I'm certainly going to try. My goal is that her gold medal is not a done deal. I want it to be a race. Just put me next to her. I love chasing people. I love it."
IN THE MIDDLE of April in Arizona, just two months remained until Olympic trials. There, sharing the deck with the likes of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, shuffling between the future stars hoping to turn in a qualifying time that would punch their ticket to Rio was 13-month-old Arlen, all smiles. The boy pinballed between the Cal swimmers, his nanny, the zero depth wading pool and the arms of his mother. It all had become so normal now.
Vollmer had thought about leaving the boy behind for the Mesa meet, the biggest before trials, but decided the night before against it. She wanted her boy by her side. She was in the middle of training at the time and her body was sore. Before the 100 fly, she gave herself a pep talk. It was only a minute. She could handle anything for a minute. Then she could get back to playing with Arlen.
In that 100 free final she chased down Kelsi Worrell -- the defending NCAA champion who had beat her in San Antonio eight months earlier -- winning the 100 fly in a time of :56.94 seconds, the first victory of her comeback and the fastest in-season 100 fly of her career. As she climbed out of the pool and headed back to her tucked away spot on the pool deck, she found Arlen, waddling around in a diaper and a T-shirt. The boy spotted his mother and reached out his arms. Vollmer bent over, picked him up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. They both smiled. Brighter than the Arizona sun.
It was a far cry from the young woman whose life once revolved around the pool. Now swimming is a hobby, an escape. The pressure is off. And she has a little boy to thank. A little boy who will be in the stands cheering his mom along in Omaha.
"After Arlen, there's not much you can throw at me that I can't handle," she says. "This has all just put me in such a happy, joyful place in my life. I don't have to make the Olympic team to prove anything to anybody. It's because I want to be there."