Les Vollmer doesn’t go anywhere without his elephant necklace.
He got it in 2000 when he was in South Africa on business as a reminder to always remember who is most important to him.
His daughter, Olympic gold swim medalist Dana Vollmer, has a pair of elephant earrings that match her father’s necklace.
It’s their family symbol to never lose touch. And they haven’t.
Dana, Les, her mother Cathy and brother Nick are as close as a family can be when they are often in different parts of the world.
“I was away from home for five weeks when I found this,” Les said. “It seemed perfect, with the time zone difference, it’s so easy to just lose track, and I didn’t want to lose track.”
A few years later when a new job took him to Canada for up to three months at a time, he and Dana still kept in touch every day via computers and Skype.
“She and I would do homework online,” he said.
Dana and her father were at the Economic Outlook Conference gathering Wednesday at the Granbury Resort Conference Center. She was the featured speaker, and he was right there on the front row.
She spoke of her recent adventures in the London Olympics, where she won three gold medals and set a pair of world records – adding in an Olympic record. But she opened the presentation with yet another special moment she shared with Les.
“My dad and I took a road trip from California to here,” she said. “I was here about 14 hours, then I had to leave.”
Dana’s been traveling to and fro quite a bit lately for speaking engagements such as the one on this day. She also made an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
“That was a lot of fun, but I was nervous,” she admitted after finishing her presentation. “In the pre-show interview he didn’t say anything about the different strokes like he asked me on the air.”
SHARING HER STORY
The crowd in the Conference Center was glued on her every word, soaking in their presence near a hometown hero. Dana reciprocated with sincere gratitude for support, sharing her story of how she got into swimming and grew into the success she is today.
She is one of only 13 female swimmers in history to have won four or more Olympic gold medals. Along with the three she won this year, she brought one home in 2004 at the age of 16.
Dana told of her battles through injuries and a heart ailment, of the disappointment that was the 2008 Olympic Trials in Omaha. She spoke of how she shook off the memory of one of the worst weeks of her life and returned to that same Omaha venue this summer to qualify for London.
“Walking into that venue was like walking into a brick wall,” she said. “I began to get nervous.”
Then her coach, Teri McKeever, told her to look at the pool as if she’d never been in it before. Dana, much like the youngster who used to make regular visits to the pool now named after her in Granbury, forgot about competition and just had fun.
“I got in and played,” Dana said. “I had to make the pool fun, not the scary place from 2008.”
Before that, Dana came to grips with her fears and doubts, even admitting she almost walked away from swimming. She learned she is gluten-sensitive and allergic to eggs.
A change in diet and a change in attitude forced her to work even harder.
And she learned to handle nervousness and the expectations of other people, something she said factored greatly – along with the injuries – in her 2008 Omaha disappointment.
“Now it’s not ‘Oh God I’m nervous.’ I say, ‘Oh good, I’m nervous,’” she said.
“Omaha is now filled with incredible memories for me.”
FAMILY WAS ALWAYS THERE
And through it all, Dana relied on the strength and support of her parents, just as she has done for so many years. They followed her to London and were there with hugs, as was her husband, former Stanford standout swimmer Andy Grant.
Among her reflections, Dana recalled going to the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis when she was only 12. She finished 49th out of 101 swimmers.
She was extremely upset, she said, until “My dad reminded me that I had sent 52 other swimmers home.”
That little bit of encouragement was a spark as four years later at age 16 in Long Beach, Calif., she earned her first Olympics berth. They were in Greece (Athens), where the first Games were held in 776 B.C.
Dana started her career with the Granbury SEALS and coach Janet Steenberge, but that soon graduated to swimming for the Fort Worth Area Swim Team. That meant many trips to Fort Worth with her mom and dad.
“It was usually two trips a day to Fort Worth,” Les recalled.
It wasn’t uncommon for him to grab a snooze in the car after driving Dana to Wilkerson-Greines Natatorium in the wee hours of the morning.
During the speech she paid homage to her parents for their sacrifices, along with recognizing the rewards of her own determination.
“Standing on that highest podium, every sacrifice I ever made was worth it, the 50-minute drives, going to sleep early on the weekend, giving up junk food,” she said.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
And for anyone wondering if, at age 24, she’s ready for her career to start winding down, she’s not. While she will be 28 for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she has her sights on being there to compete.
“I already know I’m faster than I was a few weeks ago,” she said.
Dana added that even though she lives in San Francisco now, Granbury will always have a special place in her heart.
“Granbury has been my home and support system throughout my journey,” she said. “This town has grown so much, and I’m proud to call it my home.”
And, when asked, she didn’t rule out she and Andy someday having their own house here.
“I’ve been telling my dad, seeing the housing market in California, I can’t wrap my head around it,” she said. “I’ve tried to convince my husband to come to Texas. Maybe someday.”
In the meantime, all she and the members of her family have to do is glance down at the little elephant they are wearing to know they’re never far apart.
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