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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?"

A radial catheter ablation procedure arrested her arrhythmia. But a new symptom popped up. At rest her pulse would slow to the point there were long pauses between beats. The risk was the heart would not resume beating, causing sudden cardiac arrest. Physicians cleared her to compete but only if a defibrillator was present at every workout and competition. For four years Cathy Vollmer was there every time her daughter exercised.

"I can't begin to describe how much I owe my mother," Vollmer said. "To take on that load I gave her, she's the strongest person I have ever met."

One might say the same about Vollmer herself, in that it was a risk what she did. Her mom never had to use the defibrillator.

She's been symptom-free for the past four years. Vollmer has come out the other end healthy and happy with a different perspective on life. That was evident when she was asked to respond to a comment she made to the Associated Press in 2004, the year her heart rate problems surfaced.

"I would rather die swimming than not do it all," she told AP then.

"Yes, I said that," said Vollmer, looking a little sheepish.

Would she say the same thing today after everything she has gone through?

"At 15, my view of life was very narrow," she said. "Swimming was everything. I love competing. I will always love competing. But I wouldn't make that statement now. What happened has changed my perspective. I pay more attention to my family, my friends."

To that end, Vollmer talks to her father, Les, every morning at 5. A nuclear engineer in Texas, dad works nights and gets off work the same time his daughter begins her daily workout at Cal Berkeley's pool. A Cal graduate in anthropology, Vollmer is preparing for the World Championships at the end of July. She talks with her mother twice a week. Her brother Nick and Vollmer are text fiends.

Once she wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon but abandoned that "when I realized if I messed up a surgery someone could die." Then she thought of going into forensic medicine because "the people were dead" and she couldn't get involved emotionally. "Except I'd be around grieving people all the time" and so she said goodbye to that one.

Which is a long way to explain how Vollmer finally found her passion — speaking of her experience as a heart disease survivor. It's a vulnerability she offers, a trait not all that common in elite athletes of any sport.

"Once I never wanted to talk about this," said Vollmer, a Berkeley resident. "I felt it would make me appear weak as a competitor. And that it would be a negative attached to my career."

But when kids heard her story, they wrote her letters. Parents would call. Families coping with heart issues seek encouragement, answers and, most of all, the perspective of someone who has been there, experienced that. Vollmer was getting feedback and she didn't solicit it. The universe was speaking to her, she realized, and it was time to speak back.

"I knew I was never going to be just an athlete," said Vollmer, in her fourth year as AHA spokesperson. "I wanted to do more, help more, use whatever celebrity I have to make a difference."

What if, 30 years from now, she made that difference? What if, in 2043, when someone would think of the American Heart Association, they first thought of Vollmer? What if Vollmer was asked to testify before Congress on a health-related bill? What if Vollmer folded it all together — the Olympics, the arrhythmia, the intelligence — to make her the source the next Anderson Cooper would call from CNN?

What if those four Olympic gold medals weren't the highlight of her life? Could she ... would she ... can she ... ? Yes, Dana Vollmer could. She could live with that.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.