Dana Vollmer didn’t set the world record Sunday night. She didn’t even successfully defend her gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly.
But Vollmer didn’t leave the Olympic Aquatics Stadium disappointed.
She also didn’t leave without more hardware. The 28-year-old proudly wore the bronze medal around her neck after swimming a time of 56.63 seconds. Only 17 months after giving birth to Arlen Jackson Grant and 15 months after resuming her career, it felt more like gold.
“It does, like a personal gold for me,” Vollmer said. “Yeah, I didn’t know if I was going to get here or not. I just wanted to leave being extremely proud of my race.”
With Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps also swimming finals — Ledecky set a world record in the 400 freestyle and Phelps won his first gold of this Olympics in the 4x100 free — Vollmer had no chance of being the story of the night as she was four years ago. Only a handful of reporters even interviewed Vollmer after her race.
She didn’t seem to notice or care.
The bronze medal was more than most people expected from Vollmer, and maybe it’s more than she expected from herself. Before her race, Vollmer tweeted, “The final of the 100m butterfly is tonight!! No matter what — I’m so proud of this journey! #mommaonamission”
It read like a swimmer who had doubts about how the race would turn out. But Vollmer’s best proved good enough.
“I’m really, really happy with that,” said Vollmer, the Granbury, Texas native who now lives and trains in northern California. “I touched the wall, and I was just like, ‘Please let it be a medal.’ All I wanted was to dive in and felt like I gave it everything I had, and no matter what that outcome was, I was going to be proud of that.”
Vollmer owned the event in 2012, dominating the run-up to the Olympics and then setting the world record at 55.98 in London. But afterward Vollmer handed the keys to the kingdom to Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, retiring to start a family.
Sjostrom, who held the world record before Vollmer broke it, has now lowered it three times, including Sunday when she swam a 55.48. It was almost a second faster than silver medalist Penny Oleksiak of Canada.
Vollmer knows the world record is forever out of reach, but her name sat atop the record book for more than three years.
“When she made it a 55.6 [last August], I knew that was a bit of a stretch in my 16-month comeback,” Vollmer said. “I’m really happy for her with the Olympics that she had with getting the world record and lowering it. I’m really happy for her.”
Vollmer lowered her time from a 1:00.72 she swam in finishing sixth at the Los Angeles Invitational last summer in her first meet back to the 56.56 she swam in qualifying in Rio.
It’s a comeback story for the ageless.
“Amazingly proud,” Vollmer said. “It’s one of those where I’ve always had to set extremely lofty goals, so to come back and say I wanted to race Sarah Sjostrom, that’s setting it at the absolute top bar.
“Just having each of the little steps, it was one of those where I felt like I really appreciated every day and not knowing if I was going to be able to get there. To think back to my first 100 fly being a 00.9 or something and really being humbled on, ‘Wow, it’s going to take awhile to get back down.’ ... I’m extremely happy in just a year of hard training to go from a 00 to a 56.”
Vollmer now owns six Olympic medals, having won silver as part of the 4x100 freestyle relay team a day earlier. Her first medal came when she still was in high school in 2004.
Vollmer still has the 4x100 medley to go, likely adding to her collection and possibly going home with three medals of different colors.
“This is my first bronze. That’s new,” Vollmer said. “To get that silver last night and then to get the bronze this time, it’s just one of those where I feel like I’m more appreciative of every single moment that I had out here. ... I didn’t know if I might not have another individual 100 fly. You just never know. And so, [I wanted] to really kind of take that in and to just enjoy every moment of that race.”
Momma’s mission accomplished.