The stupefying Katie Ledecky continued to make setting world records her standard swim on Sunday night at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium.
Shortly thereafter, superhuman Michael Phelps via a relay reeled in his 23rd Olympic medal and 19th gold before a crowd that included infant son Boomer — whom Phelps has gushed about helping him find perspective and balance he’d never before known.
This was great stuff for USA Swimming or any fan of swimming or just someone intrigued by the limits of human achievement.
But the remarkable combination eclipsed a story that might have been more meaningful or powerful: the first individual medal and second overall medal of the Rio Games won by someone who hasn’t merely been moved by the arrival of a child but actually went through bedrest and labor to give birth a mere 17 months ago.
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For all that Phelps and Ledecky have done to stoke imagination and inspiration, Dana Vollmer’s story is another sort of barrier broken, or at least rarely achieved in the grueling sport.
Along with Dara Torres, who won three silver medals in the 2008 Beijing Games, Vollmer is believed to be just the second U.S. swimmer — and one of few overall — to win Olympic medals after having a child.
So it was of scant disappointment Sunday that she took bronze in the 100-meter butterfly in which she had set a world record and claimed gold at the 2012 London Olympics.
Somehow, this particular bronze, delivered with son Arlen’s name etched on her foot, was instantly alchemized.
“Like a personal gold for me,” she said Sunday night as she held her sixth Olympic medal, including four golds and the silver she’d earned in the 4x100 freestyle relay on Saturday.
Not that Vollmer, 28, would douse or reject the notion of her example as a motivation to women, but this all started with a more subtle way of perhaps demonstrating that two years after she’d retired.
With a smile as she was asked Tuesday about the impetus to get back in the water, she said, it largely came from being on bedrest during a complicated pregnancy.
Seven weeks of just lying there, as she put it, left her restless and fidgety and wanting to reconnect with her body.
In the weeks after Arlen was born on March 6, 2015, she felt she was at what she playfully called “ground zero.”
Meaning “zero abs” and “your ligaments stretched out” and other things you “can’t just go in a training room and say, ‘Let’s fix this.’ ”
So with the guidance and support of Teri McKeever, her coach from the University of California-Berkeley, gradually she went back in the water taking what she actually called “baby steps.”
Before she would regain her world-class athleticism and “better abs now than I had pre-baby” and the chance for another medal later this week in the 4x100 medley, she hardly could make it through warmups.
But she had become consumed anew with some of the very things that had always compelled her about swimming: understanding her own anatomy and the physics of the water and how your shoulders move and the way to create power and find balance.
The matter of balance came into play in more ways than one.
Now her first priority was the son she was nursing who sometimes didn’t sleep at all, and so maybe some days she just couldn’t work out.
Turns out that gave her some perspective and rest — from swimming, anyway — by which she prospered.
“It was definitely more challenging than I think I thought it would be, just in a lot of different areas, in sleep and my husband is at work and going through that routine. I always thought it would be the two of us, and a lot of times it's me,” she said before the U.S. Swimming trials in Omaha. “And to kind of find that inner strength when I didn't think I had it, you know, I feel like it's made me learn to be nicer to myself (and) just forgive myself.
“It's OK that I'm struggling; it doesn't make me a bad mom. It's OK that I'm sitting there rocking him and just really hoping that he falls asleep and little moments where I just realize that I can't tell him, ‘Hey, I need a break’ (and) that you have to find that strength.
“You have to find it somewhere, and I think the hard times have made me stronger than I think I've ever been in the past. I don't think there is much people could throw at me now that would take me off my game.”
Once, she thought, swimming defines who you are as a person. That attitude was a blessing and a curse.
“It’s why you swam, (but) it’s hard to swim like that for long,” she said in Omaha.
Though Arlen and the man she calls “Super Dad,” husband Andy Grant, stayed home for this trip, now she thinks about a son who wants her to hold him after a race.
Not because she swam well or didn’t swim well but because she’s his mother.
Albeit a #mommaonamission,” as she’s used on Twitter.
“I feel like it’s very freeing to stand behind the blocks and not have that fear or failure,” she said. “To stand up and be able to try as hard as I can. And I just feel like it opens so many doors to how fast that I could go without having that fear.”
Not to mention the doors of example she’s opened.