Dana Vollmer: Olympic Gold Medalist Has the Heart of a Champion

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJuly 30, 2012

Dana Vollmer won the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly. With a world record time of 55.98, she also became the first woman to swim under 56 seconds in this event. Vollmer's success in the pool has not come without an incredible amount of perseverance and heart.

In 2003, at the age of 15, Vollmer was training for a chance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She battled dizzy spells and light-headedness. In addition, her heart rate was abnormally high and would be very slow to return to normal after her training sessions.

Her parents took her to see a doctor, then a cardiologist, and Vollmer was diagnosed with a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia. Without getting into too much medical vernacular, this caused Vollmer's rapid heart rate.  At the age of 15, Vollmer underwent heart surgery.

However, during the surgery, the doctors found a more daunting issue with her heart. Vollmer had the symptoms of long Q-T Syndrome, which is an abnormality where irregular electrical impulses can be sent to the heart. The result of this disease can lead to heart arrhythmia and sudden cardiac arrest.

Doctors recommended more surgery and wanted to implant a defibrillator into Vollmer's heart. This would have ended Vollmer's training and her Olympic dream. Vollmer and her parents were terrified, confused and needed to make some very tough decisions.

Dana and her family opted to go a different route. With the approval of her doctors, Vollmer was required to have an external defibrillator at the pool whenever she trained or competed. For the next several years, the defibrillator followed Vollmer around to every practice and swim meet she participated in.

Vollmer made the 2004 Olympic team and won her first gold medal at the age of 16 in the 4x200 freestyle relay. In the stands, close to the pool deck, was her mother with the defibrillator at her feet, ready to use if needed.

Vollmer's career has had its ups and downs. In 2008, in a devastating turn of events, she failed to qualify for the U.S. team. In addition to her heart condition, Vollmer has also battled several injuries and a stomach disorder, which necessitated a special diet.

On the flip side, Vollmer helped lead Cal to the NCAA women's Swimming and Diving championship. Her coach, Teri McKeever, is also the head coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team.

Vollmer has also won world championship medals, including gold in 2011 in the 100m butterfly and 4x100m medley relay.

Vollmer now has one individual Olympic gold medal to go along with the relay medal she won eight years ago in Athens. She will now compete in the 4x200m freestyle relay, where the U.S. has a chance for more hardware.

Amazingly, following her freshman year at Florida, as she was transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, Vollmer's heart showed no signs of the long Q-T Syndrome that had plagued her for the past several years. Apparently, she just outgrew it.

Vollmer credits her doctors for allowing her to continue to train and compete. She also is thankful to her parents, especially her mom, Cathy, who had the unenviable job of carrying the defibrillator to every meet Dana swam in.

Vollmer and her mom are active volunteers for the American Heart Association. She has also made several appearances and given speeches about her condition and treatments in an effort to raise awareness about heart disease.

Whenever you hear a commentator say, "That athlete has heart," just remember Dana Vollmer. Then you will know the true meaning of that statement. It is far more than just being a staunch competitor. Vollmer overcame a life-threatening condition to set world records and become an Olympic champion.