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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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U.S. to play in snow volleyball tour, led by 4-time Olympian

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When USA Volleyball asked four-time Olympian Lloy Ball to put together a team for a snow volleyball tournament in Moscow this week, the 2008 gold medalist was eager to accept.

Never mind that he’s never played on the snow before.

Or that, at 46, he’s not a likely candidate for the U.S. Olympic team if the discipline is eventually added to the Winter Games.

“I’ve been playing volleyball my entire life. It would just be an amazing feeling to know that me and my friends would be able to help volleyball grow,” Ball said. “To help be one of the forefathers, to get another discipline of volleyball into the Olympics, it would be awesome.”

The son of a volleyball coach and a member of the U.S. indoor team that won gold in Beijing, Ball played professionally in Russia for six years and was a natural choice to be a part of first American team to play on the European snow volleyball tour. After what he is calling an exploratory mission, he hopes to report back to the national governing body on how it can help the sport grow.

The ultimate goal: helping snow volleyball earn a spot in the Olympics — perhaps by 2026.

“We want to climb this mountain step by step. We do not want to rush,” said Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the sport’s international governing body, adding that snow volleyball will join the Olympics “as soon as the discipline has an amazing relevance in the world.”

“We have our road map, we have our timeline,” he said. “We really believe it is premature now to mention anything about Winter Olympic Games. I cannot say to you 2026 is realistic or not.”

Still, they are plowing ahead.

After a demonstration at the PyeongChang Olympics, the European governing body held its first snow championships in March. With its 2018-19 tour starting this weekend in Moscow it has invited teams from the United States to compete. (Teams from Kazakhstan and Brazil were also offered wild-card entries.)

Knowing that he spent time in Russia and would make a good ambassador, USA Volleyball chief Jamie Davis called Ball, who remains active as a coach and a semi-pro grass and beach volleyball player. He pulled together a team with Will Robbins, Kevin Owens and Tomas Goldsmith.

Although they have been training outside in Indiana to get used to the cold, the first time they will play on a snow court will be in Moscow.

“I’m going to rely on my massive amount of repetition and skill training and experience,” Ball said with a laugh. “Hopefully we won’t embarrass ourselves too badly and hopefully we’ll know what to do better next time. I’m going to come back and sit down with Jamie, and maybe say ‘Hey, this is something that can take off.’”

The women’s team for the Moscow tournament, which USA Volleyball put together, consists of Allie Wheeler, Emily Hartong, Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook.

“It’s a milestone for us,” Davis said. “We’re starting at level zero and building this up from scratch.”

“My hope is that we’ll get more and more athletes that are concentrating on snow, in addition to beach and indoor,” he said. “What I would hope for snow volleyball is that we’re going to be able to have players — north, south, east or west — be able to go outdoors to play the sport they love to play.”

Although snow volleyball has kicked around Europe for a decade, its growth accelerated the last five years. The European volleyball federation officially recognized the sport in 2015, and a seven-stop European tour is planned for 2018-19, starting with this week’s event in Moscow.

Azevedo said the FIVB is hoping to add three more events of its own, including one in Argentina that will be the first outside of Europe. Davis said he hopes to host one in the United States next winter.

From there, the FIVB is planning for a snow volleyball competition at the Youth Olympics and World University Games in 2020 and the winter Military World Games in 2021, along with a possible world championship.

“We are really shaping this new discipline around the world,” Azevedo said, adding that it would have much lower barriers to entry than many winter sports, which require ice rinks or luge runs or mountains.

That could help open the Winter Olympics to countries with successful volleyball programs but no ice or snow.

“Possibly snow volleyball is the only winter sport you can just pass by and play,” Azevedo said. “You just need proper clothes, football cleats, and you can play.”

An earlier incarnation of the sport had two-person teams, like beach volleyball, but organizers tinkered with the rules and settled on three-on-three, with a fourth teammate as a substitute. While indoor sets go to 25 and the beach goes to 21, snow volleyball games are up to 15

“Thank God, because it is minus 20 in Russia — Celsius,” Ball said.

Although the court layout is similar to beach, the ball is heavier when it gets wet and players wear thermal clothing and soccer cleats for traction. Ball said the sport puts a premium on ball control and serving, because it’s harder to move quickly in the snow.

“As long as you control the serve receive and serve well, I think on any surface you can be successful,” he said.

Martin Kaswurm, who is credited with inventing the sport when he set up a court outside his restaurant in Austria, said having different rules helps distinguish the sport from “its older brother beach volleyball” and could make it more appealing to Olympic officials.

“This should help to position snow volleyball as a unique version of the game,” he said.

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Ester Ledecka must decide between ski, snowboard worlds

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SELVA DI VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — Skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka will not be able to follow up her dual sport gold-medal performances at the PyeongChang Olympics with a similar haul of world titles this season.

That’s because the schedule won’t allow it, and she’s not happy about it.

The parallel giant slalom at the world freestyle skiing and snowboard championships in Utah is Feb. 4 — the same day downhill training opens at Alpine skiing worlds in Are, Sweden, and a day before the super-G.

“I was a little bit hoping they would reschedule the snowboard race — put it a week earlier so I could do it both — but they didn’t want to so I have to choose,” Ledecka said Tuesday after placing 29th in a World Cup downhill.

In PyeongChang, Ledecka followed her super-G title by winning the parallel GS in snowboarding — becoming the first athlete to win two golds at one Winter Games using two different types of equipment.

The 23-year-old Czech is the reigning world champion in parallel GS.

Ledecka said she brought up the issue with the International Ski Federation, which governs both sports.

“On one side I see their point. For one athlete why should they do that, right? But from the other side I think I made snowboarding a little more popular, and I think a lot of fans would be happy to see me compete in both,” Ledecka said. “It’s their decision, and I have to respect it.”

Ledecka has not decided which worlds she’ll compete in. She’s currently going back and forth between the snowboard and ski circuits.

Last week, she finished first and second in two parallel GS events in Italy and then switched to downhill skis this week. She was fastest in a downhill training run Monday before finishing 29th in Tuesday’s race.

“I think I can decide right before,” Ledecka said. “But it will probably be early, so I’m well prepared.”

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