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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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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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