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Dana Vollmer, Momma on a Mission, challenged in second comeback

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Dana Vollmer was convinced that returning from her second pregnancy to competitive swimming would be easier than after her first child.

“That’s definitely not true,” she said Thursday as she readied for a Mother’s Day weekend trip to her native Texas.

Vollmer, who made the 2016 Olympic team 15 months after giving birth to son Arlen (and earned a medal of every color with the mantra “Momma on a Mission”), decided after Rio that she would try to repeat the process. With a few tweaks.

This time, the seven-time Olympic medalist would swim through her pregnancy. Vollmer competed 26 weeks pregnant at a meet in Mesa, Ariz., in April 2017. Then she toned down her training and had son Ryker on July 4, nearly 20 months earlier in the Olympic cycle than her previous pregnancy.

This time, she returned to light workouts six days after giving birth. Vollmer, who turned 30 last year, was back swimming along with her training partners, the Cal Bears women’s team, a week after that.

Back in 2015, Vollmer also returned to the pool two weeks after having Arlen (and being on bed rest for two months), but she didn’t rejoin the training group for two months.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself that I would be able to come back faster [this time],” she said. “It’s still a long, slow journey to coming back after what your body goes through during pregnancy.”

Vollmer hoped to return to competition at winter nationals last December, but she delayed it until a meet in Austin, Texas, in January. She hasn’t competed since, partly because she and husband Andy Grant are still working out the balance of regular training and the irregularities of chasing 3-year-old and 10-month-old boys.

“You get one to sleep, then the other wakes up and keeps you up all night,” Vollmer said. “It was hard, at the beginning, to get adjusted to two kids. You never really get to have downtime.”

Vollmer’s goal is to train every morning during the week while Arlen is at preschool. Not quite there yet. Then start squeezing in afternoon sessions, something she didn’t do in 2016 and felt cost her speed in Rio. But things pop up, like two months of late nights with sick kids before the Austin meet, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Vollmer enlisted the advice of others who swam competitively as moms, something she didn’t do three years ago.

Like Dara Torres, who at 41 years old earned three silver medals at the 2008 Olympics, two years after childbirth. And Megan Jendrick, the 2000 Olympic 100m breaststroke champ who competed at the 2012 trials eight months after having son Daethan.

“All of them kind of said, once you find a routine, you can count on the fact that it’s going to change,” said Vollmer, noting of Arlen, whom she toted around regularly in 2016, “He’s 3. The last thing he wants to do is just sit while mommy is swimming.”

Come 2020, Vollmer will be 32, older than any previous U.S. Olympic female swimmer except Torres. Torres became the oldest in 2000 (when Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at trials at age 12, collecting autographs), then shattered her age record in 2008.

This summer is more key in the U.S. Olympic cycle for swimming than other sports like track and field and gymnastics. The U.S. team for the biennial world championships in 2019 will pretty much be determined at this July’s national championships. Worlds are the biggest meet between now and the Olympics, so important that Michael Phelps made sure he unretired in 2014 to keep the 2015 Worlds in play.

Vollmer is a wait-and-see on entering meets this spring and summer, including nationals.

She skipped the Mesa meet last month because she had finally found a rhythm of consistent workouts that wasn’t worth interrupting.

She’s not competing at next week’s Pro Series meet in Indianapolis. Vollmer is actually spending Mother’s Day weekend in her native Texas, with her two boys, visiting her grandmother and appearing at the EmpowHer yoga festival in Dallas.

If she does compete at nationals, Vollmer would like to get at least one prep meet in beforehand. The next Pro Series meet in Santa Clara in June, near her training base, is on her radar.

“It’s a little unfortunate that they also pick next year’s world championships this summer, because a whole ‘nother year would be amazing to be able to have that amount of training under my belt and want to make a world championships team,” Vollmer said, “but, honestly, my focus is on 2020. We’re going to take it meet-by-meet and see where we are.”

If Vollmer does make the 2020 Olympic team in her patented 100m butterfly or as part of a freestyle relay, she hopes for another change from 2016.

“I could have swam even faster in Rio,” she said. 

Vollmer said those Olympics “were incredibly hard as a mom” being away from Arlen, who stayed in the Bay Area with Grant. Even if Arlen was in Rio, Vollmer said policy and obligations would have largely kept her apart from her son. (Torres’ daughter was not with her in Beijing.)

She also lamented limited time with her personal coach and trainer, who also weren’t with her in Brazil. She voiced these concerns to Frank Busch, the longtime U.S. national team director who retired last year.

The U.S. swim team’s foundation to become the world’s best is rooted in unity. Between trials and the Olympics, the swimmers spend weeks together at training camps. Most swimmers are in their teens or early 20s. Someone like Vollmer, married with kids, is unique.

You make the team, and you still have three or four weeks to get faster,” Vollmer said. “I think that’s when I would like to see some changes made. I fully respect the team bonding and that atmosphere.

“I want to combine the two, my love of competing at an Olympic Games with the love of my family and the routine I’ve developed and worked for me.”

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Bradie Tennell matures from Cinderella — keeping AC/DC — in Skate America return

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Bradie Tennell is asked to recall one memory from 2017 Skate America.

“Standing at the door for free program and looking into the arena and saying to myself, oh, it feels a bit like nationals,” she said.

Tennell returns this week to the event where she broke out last season. Before 2017 Skate America, Tennell had never competed on the top senior international level. She had finished sixth and ninth at two nationals appearances, spending a summer in a back brace in between. She was the dark horse for the three-woman Olympic team.

Then Tennell went 15 for 15 on her jumps at Skate America at the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Arena on Thanksgiving weekend. She earned a bronze medal with the highest score in any international competition by a U.S. woman in more than a year and half.

“I did my job,” Tennell said that day. “I think I have [put myself in the Olympic conversation].”

Tennell’s next three competitions were nationals (which she won) and the Olympics and world championships, where she was the top-placing American in ninth and sixth, respectively, albeit with uncharacteristic jumping errors.

She goes into this week’s Skate America — at the beginning of the Grand Prix series, rather than the end — as the clear American headliner in the marquee Winter Olympic event.

MORE: Skate America TV, stream schedule

Mirai NagasuAshley Wagner and Polina Edmunds aren’t competing this fall. Gracie Gold is coming back but hasn’t competed in nearly two years. The other active Olympian, Karen Chen, just withdrew from her first Grand Prix next month with a foot injury.

“I don’t really get nervous, per se,” Tennell said last week. “I think the only time that I am anything close to like anxious is right before my music starts. But last year I was so excited to be at my first Grand Prix, finally, after so much had happened in the past. That excitement carried over into my performances.”

Tennell’s goals this season, which she looks at daily with coach Denise Myers in suburban Chicago, include showing a grown-up look. Last season, Tennell’s teenage free skate was to “Cinderella.” This season, the 20-year-old chose “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I want this year’s Bradie to be very mature, very elegant, somebody who is almost unrecognizable from last year,” Tennell said in an interview with Skating magazine, for which she wore a black “New Kids on the Block” sleeveless T-shirt and plugged into a Sanyo Walkman for the cover photo shoot, an homage to her love of 1980s rock. 

Tennell used the Shakespearean tragedy to overtake Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia in her season debut at the Autumn Classic in Canada last month. The free-skate score ranks sixth in the world going into the Grand Prix series, trailing three Russians and two Japanese.

The challenge for Tennell and every top U.S. woman the last several years has been breaking into the top echelon of skaters from Russia and Japan.

“When she blew onto the scene, obviously, technically, she’s fantastic and so consistent [with jumps], which I think really sets her apart,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “The effort [at Autumn Classic], the choices of music, her movement, choreography, intention behind each movement is, in my opinion, dramatically improved from last year. Is it at the same level as Yevgenia or [Olympic champion] Alina Zagitova? No. So I still think this is going to be a time of transformation for her over the next few seasons. But she’s off to a really, really strong start.”

Tennell also added the triple Lutz-triple loop combination, done only by Zagitova last season among the senior women.

Myers, who has coached Tennell since age 9, insists they don’t compare scores or even talk about placements.

“I don’t give that any thought,” said Tennell, whose pre-competition focus is on the likes of AC/DC, Journey and Foreigner on her 100-plus-song playlist. “I don’t focus on other people, who they are or what they’ve done.”

Then Tennell may not be dwelling on the fact that she could become the youngest U.S. woman to win Skate America since Kimmie Meissner in 2007. Neither Zagitova nor Medvedeva is in this week’s field in Everett, Wash. Neither is world champion Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, who is taking the season off.

The top threats are Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto, who went one-two ahead of Tennell at 2017 Skate America. Tennell’s total score from Autumn Classic (206.41) beat those from Miyahara and Sakamoto in their late-summer events.

“You can tell that [Tennell] didn’t win the national title, go to the Olympics and is relaxing, easing into the next Olympic cycle,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said. “She’s out for blood.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Watch ‘1968’ and ‘Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos’

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NBCSN airs “1968,” the NBC Olympics documentary on the Mexico City Games narrated by Serena Williams, followed by a 15-minute excerpt of “Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos” on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

Both full programs can also be streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

“1968,” which premiered during the PyeongChang Winter Games, tells the stories not only of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the medal podium, but also of the intersections of sports and politics leading up to and during the Mexico City Olympics.

“Bring the Fire” focuses on Smith, Carlos and the podium gesture, featuring a conversation between NBC Sports track and field analyst Ato Boldon and Carlos.

STREAM LINK: “1968”
STREAM LINK: “Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos”

Then on Oct. 31, NBCSN premieres a two-hour special, “1968: The Legacy of the Mexico City Games,” at 8:30 p.m. ET. That show will include “1968,” along with a roundtable discussion about the legacy of the Mexico City Games.

Mike Tirico hosts a panel including Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (the first Muslim-American woman to compete at the Olympics with a hijab), tennis player James Blake and Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis.

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