Mother carries defibrillator just in case

Updated: July 12, 2004, 12:41 AM ET
Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- When Dana Vollmer heads to the pool, she brings along her suit, cap and goggles.

Her mother is in charge of the defibrillator.

"I won't even touch it," Vollmer said.

Dana Vollmer
Dana Vollmer swims the 200-meter freestyle.

The 16-year-old Texan swims with a rare condition that could cause her heart to beat rapidly -- then suddenly stop. If that happens, death can occur within minutes. So Cathy Vollmer brings along a defibrillator to all her daughter's meets, ready to spring into action if the unthinkable happens.

"When we first found out about it, of course I was terrified," the mother said Sunday. "She was just really courageous through that whole thing. She kept believing that everything would be OK."

Dana kept on swimming, putting the condition out of her mind. Now, she's reached the ultimate pinnacle -- the Olympics.

Vollmer pulled off a major upset Saturday in the finals of the 200-meter freestyle, beating American record holder Lindsay Benko to earn a spot on the U.S. team.

"I would rather die swimming than not do it at all," Vollmer said.

She refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong with her heart. She hasn't had any problems since being diagnosed 14 months ago while doctors ran tests for another heart-related ailment.

That condition, known as radio-frequency ablation, was corrected through minor surgery. But doctors also diagnosed "long Q-T" -- a hereditary disorder of the heart's electrical rhythm that can occur in otherwise healthy people. Children and young adults are especially susceptible.

Vollmer doesn't have the more-serious long Q-T syndrome, which would have forced her to give up any hopes of an athletic career.

According to the American Heart Association Web site, those with the syndrome are at risk of abnormally rapid heart rates, which can starve off oxygen to the brain. If it doesn't get back to a normal rhythm, the heart can go into spasms that lead to ventricular fibrillation. The heart stops -- and death follows within minutes without treatment.

That's where the small, portable defibrillator comes into play. While Vollmer doesn't have the syndrome, she's still at risk. Her mother is certified to use the device.

"Even though she hasn't needed it, and we're much more confident that she won't need it, I'll have it there just in case," Cathy Vollmer said.

Dana is competing in her second trials. Four years ago, she was the youngest swimmer at the meet -- a wide-eyed 12-year-old who went around getting heroes such as Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres to autograph a kickboard. The kickboard now hangs on Vollmer's bedroom wall back in Granbury, Texas, a reminder of her 47th-place finish in the 100 butterfly.

"I think those trials helped her tremendously because of the size of this meet and all the pressure," Cathy Vollmer said. "Walking in front of all those people can be really intimidating and scary. This time, since she had been there before, she knew what to expect."

These days, Dana is the one being asked for her signature. On Sunday, as she left the pool after failing to qualify in the 100 freestyle preliminaries, a young boy approached with his kickboard, looking for an autograph. She gladly obliged.

Along the way, Vollmer has endured plenty of physical roadblocks. In 2002, doctors found a torn knee ligament. Intent on competing at the Pan American Games, she put off surgery to qualify for the team -- and wound up winning three gold medals last year in the Dominican Republic.

"It was kind of gross feeling it move around while I was swimming," Vollmer said. "But I made the team."

She made an even bigger team this year, stunning Benko and herself by winning the 200 free. In the stands, Vollmer's mother couldn't stop crying.

"Dana has worked so hard all these years, sacrificed a lot of things with this goal in mind," her mother said. "It's just tremendous to have that dream come true."

Another dream -- this one shared with plenty of other teenagers -- will come true, as well. Les Vollmer said he would get an Olympic rings tattoo and allow his daughter to do the same if she made the American team.

Unbeknownst to Cathy, she became part of the deal, too. She plans to get a modest tattoo on her ankle.

"I think it will be fun," the mom said. "I wouldn't mind a small Olympic rings. It was a family thing getting her there. It took a lot of everybody's part."

And a lot of heart from Dana, who refuses to let a potentially deadly condition keep her out of the pool.

"In my mind, I've never really had it," she said. "I still don't believe it."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press