In the afternoons, Dana Vollmer, 7-time Olympic medalist, takes her kid to the playground near their house in Danville. Sometimes people recognize them. But not usually.
“It’s always the moms,” she says, who recognize her. Or more accurately recognize her and her 19-month-old son, Arlen, together.
Swimmers don’t typically get spotted in public; they look too different without the swim caps and goggles. But not many of them have kids. In fact, Vollmer is the first swimmer to ever win an Olympic gold medal after giving birth. She won a silver and gold in the relays in Rio, and a bronze in the 100m fly. The kid makes her very noticeable at the pool and the swimming makes her noticeable at the playground.
It’s the other moms at the park who want to come and talk to her, she says, to tell her that if she can win a medal with a young toddler then they can work towards their own goals too. They have so much in common, these moms. Sort of.
Each morning, Vollmer wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and drives to Cal for swim practice from 6 to 8 a.m., where she works out with the college team. The nanny shows up at their house around 7 a.m., so her husband can get ready for his “normal desk job” as a computer security consultant. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Vollmer does strength work after swimming. Then she heads back home, makes lunch while the nanny is still helping out until 2 p.m., and then has the rest of the day for just her and Arlen to do whatever parents and their kids do everywhere.
They make lunch. They run errands. They go to the park. She chases him around. (Actually, she says, her fitness tracker shows that her heart rate is often higher when she’s doing stuff with Arlen than when she’s lifting weights.) They take afternoon naps at the same time. She carries a water bottle around, so he wants one too.
It’s like any flexible job for a stay-at-home mom. Well, not exactly. For this one, there was a trip to the White House for the U.S. Olympians to meet the President and a month-long training camp in Tasmania—both of which the whole family went on. Vollmer works really hard to balance her family life with her athletic ambitions. It’s probably not something her male counterparts worry as much about, but when she decided to come back to training post-birth she wanted “to still be the mom I wanted to be.” That means sometimes she comes home early and sometimes she takes the toddler with her.
Between team camp before the Olympics and then heading straight to Rio, Vollmer was gone for 31 days—while her husband and Arlen stayed at home. It was a long time to be away. “I was just really excited to come home,” she says.
But there haven’t been many Olympic swimmers who were also mothers, no gold medal winners. Why is it so hard to come back post-birth? “It was kind of everything,” Vollmer says. The physical changes are tough in the water. Your body changes and it changes your whole flotation and balance—similar to why there haven’t been many gymnasts post-puberty, much less post-birth.
So, instead of sticking around for the closing ceremonies, Vollmer got on a plane the morning after her last relay race, and flew back to the Bay Area. And then didn’t do anything. “For two weeks, I didn’t even answer the phone,” she says. They laid around the house, took Arlen to the park, and slept in.
But then it was back to work. Specifically, back to the work of cashing in while the cash is good.
Being an Olympian is an up-and-down job, one where you work for four years (or more) for the chance to finally (possibly) make some money during the short period when people are paying attention. “It’s your chance to kind of capitalize financially on what you did,” she says.
That means Vollmer has been home less now than when she was training before Rio. Once or twice each week she’ll travel to give a motivational speech or to put on a clinic. She went to Utah to present their state employee awards and to run a kids’ swimming event, and then flew to Chicago to speak at an executive summit. She spoke to employees at a financial and presented at the US Masters Swimming annual banquet.
It’s a standard 25-minute speech she gives, talking about her story, what she’s learned, and especially what it’s been like this Olympics—after she retired from the sport, gave birth, and then decided to come back to swimming.
There have been mothers in other Olympic sports before. It’s 2016; in some ways it shouldn’t be a big deal that a mom can do what dads have done for decades. But there haven’t been many Olympic swimmers who were also mothers, no gold medal winners. Why is it so hard to come back post-birth?
“It was kind of everything,” she says. The physical changes are tough in the water. Your body changes and it changes your whole flotation and balance—similar to why there haven’t been many gymnasts post-puberty, much less post-birth. Nursing causes challenges too and is hard on the body, especially when you’re putting yourself through so much training. And swimming is all about massive amounts of training. Swimmers tend to focus on simply banking the most yards possible. The harder the workouts, the better. That means normal things that are tough for new moms—sleeping, recovery, managing your time—have a bigger impact.
All those reasons are why Vollmer hadn’t planned to come back after the London Olympics. She won three gold medals there, and didn’t see the point in sacrificing her chance to have a family to keep at it.
Now, though, she’s having fun. She enjoyed her time in Rio more. And she wanted to see if she could do it, if she could do something that hadn’t been done before.
Vollmer and her coach, Teri McKeever, the women’s coach at Cal, came up with a schedule that makes sense for her. She focuses on technique and recovery, not on yardage. She only practices in the morning—unheard of for Olympic-caliber swimmers. Lots of people thought it wouldn’t be enough and she wouldn’t make the Olympic team this summer, much less medal. They were wrong.
“Swimming is my ‘me time,’” she says. When she’s there, she focuses totally on swimming. Then she goes home and is just mom again. Just like all the other parents at the park.