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.
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
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
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
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."