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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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Diamond League slate ends in Doha with record holders; TV, stream info

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The Diamond League season ends on Friday in the place where it was supposed to start — Doha.

Like many sports, track and field’s calendar was put in disarray by the coronavirus pandemic. The Doha meet, originally scheduled for April 17 to open an Olympic season, was postponed five months while other stops were canceled altogether.

Now, Doha caps an unlikely season that still produced stirring performances. NBCSN coverage starts at 12 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Gold also streams live for subscribers.

The headliner is Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, a leading contender for Male Athlete of the Year. Duplantis, who twice bettered the world record in February at indoor meets, last week produced the highest outdoor clearance in history, too, breaking a 26-year-old Sergey Bubka record.

Duplantis can mimic Bubka on Friday by attempting to raise his world record another centimeter — to 6.19 meters, or more than 20 feet, 3 inches.

The deepest track event in Doha is the finale, the women’s 3000m, featuring 3000m steeplechase world-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, 5000m world champion Hellen Obiri and rising 1500m runner Gudaf Tsegay.

Here are the Doha entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

11:18 a.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
11:33 — Men’s 200m
12:03 p.m. — Men’s 400m
12:08 — Women’s Long Jump
12:12 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
12:21 — Men’s 1500m
12:34 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
12:43 — Women’s 800m
12:56 — Women’s 100m
1:07 — Men’s 800m
1:18 — Women’s 3000m

Here are three events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 11:18 a.m.
Duplantis looks to complete a perfect 2020 against his two primary rivals — reigning world champion and American Sam Kendricks (who went undefeated in 2017) and 2012 Olympic champion and former world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France. Kendricks was the last man to beat Duplantis, at those 2019 World Championships, and is the only man to clear a height within nine inches of Duplantis’ best this outdoor season.

Women’s 100m — 12:56 p.m.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah looks poised to finish the year as the world’s fastest woman after clocking 10.85 seconds in Rome last week, her fastest time outside of Jamaica in more than three years. That’s one hundredth faster than countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce‘s best time of 2020. Thompson-Herah was fifth and fourth at the last two world championships after sweeping the Rio Olympic sprints. Like in Rome, her primary challengers in Doha are Ivorian Marie-Josée Ta Lou and 2018 U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs.

Women’s 3000m — 1:18 p.m.
A meeting of titans in a non-Olympic event. Chepkoech is the fastest steeplechaser in history by eight seconds. Obiri is the fastest Kenyan in history in the 3000m and the 5000m. Tsegay, just 23, chopped 3.26 seconds off her 1500m personal best in 2019, taking bronze at the world championships to become the second-fastest Ethiopian in history in that event. In all, the field includes five medalists from the 2019 Worlds across four different events.

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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