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PADECKY: Olympian embraces role as spokeswoman

When someone wins an Olympic gold medal, or four of them in Dana Vollmer's case, it is nearly impossible to find a conversational subject that could compete with the honor, the prestige, the glory and the fame of being the best athlete in the world in a particular event.

Unless, of course, it was Dana's mother sitting poolside with a defibrillator, just in case her daughter's heart stopped while she was swimming.

Yes, that would be a conversational competitor.

“I pretended never to have been diagnosed with a heart problem,” Vollmer told patrons at an American Heart Association fundraiser last week at the Hyatt in downtown Santa Rosa. “I refused to touch the (defibrillator) unit. How could I have pushed myself hard everyday in the pool, thinking that my heart was going to stop? So I transferred all that anxiety to my mother.”

Vollmer was the featured speaker at the AHA banquet. She took the audience through her journey, a 12-year member of the USA national swim team, a spokesperson for the AHA, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and, most important, a charismatic and courageous symbol of hope.

“There is one statistic that struck me and has stayed with me,” Vollmer said. “Every two weeks, a child athlete in this country dies from cardiac arrest, and most of the time it was preventable.”

Vollmer the 25-year-old adult may have been speaking to a banquet room full of parents. But as she was peeling back her story, layer after layer, she was revealing Dana Vollmer, the 15-year-old girl, scared, when the arrhythmia would spike her heart rate to 240 beats a minute. The arrhythmia was putting her Olympic dream in jeopardy.

“Some doctors said I would never swim again,” said Vollmer, who won one gold in Athens in 2004 and three golds in London last summer. “Others said I could exercise but never at the level I would need to train to compete in the Olympics. I was practicing 11 times a week, five hours a day. I had been doing that for three years. My Olympic dream, was it worth risking my life for?”

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