17 months after having her son Arlen, Dana Vollmer won a gold medal in swimming at the Rio Olympics.
For perspective, it takes me 17 months to get around to putting the garden hose away.
For Vollmer to accomplish such an incredible feat required a world class skill set, and mindset.
Getting a chance to probe such a mindset with this extraordinary gold medal winner revealed 16 gold nuggets for success:
1. Rework your schedule, not vice versa
Vollmer shared the realization with me that when she came back to work, her life looked remarkably different–and there was nothing wrong with that. She talked about the importance of the almighty schedule, and how critical it was to rework the schedule to manage it and be happy with it.
Others may criticize. Plenty of people told Vollmer that she wouldn’t make it to the Olympics by practicing in the mornings only. But that’s exactly what Vollmer did, as she wanted to spend the rest of the day with her son.
Vollmer 1, Critics 0.
Vollmer closed out this point with authority by telling me: “If you’ve created a daily life you love, forget what others think. Stay strong and true to the process. And know you’re completely capable of building back up, and the fact that you have a new schedule to master makes it even more rewarding.”
2. Newborns are hard (duh), so be kind to yourself
Vollmer had to remind herself of this over and over. When she came back she wanted to go full-tilt, but wasn’t able to. She was wiped out after just her first few sessions. So she reminded herself just how hard coming back after a baby really was, and gave herself a break.
You should too.
3. Don’t try to win a gold medal every day
Vollmer learned that every day isn’t perfect, and that she wasn’t going to have the best training session every day. The goal was for her to make improvements with what she could handle each day.
She wasn’t always going to have the capacity to have the best aerobic session, but she could go in and work on her turns, or her breathing. She learned to analyze the state she was in that day and what she could get better at.
It became about, as Vollmer told me, “the little wins along the way.”
4. Let the naysayers drive you
Vollmer faced no shortage of doubters after she had her baby–those quick to tell her that her dream of coming back and competing at an Olympic level, let alone winning a medal, were folly.
All that did was add more fuel to Vollmer’s fire. It gave her focus to prove them wrong.
You can get the same drive from your skeptics, instead of letting them drown you. Or you can just drown them out.
5. Let your competitors inspire you
When Vollmer’s friend Sarah Sjostrom broke a Vollmer world record, it triggered an unexpected response. While she was happy for her friend, Vollmer began crying when she heard the news.
But then she took a few breaths and realized the target was now off of her back and on Sjostrom’s. “She can have it back,” Vollmer says. “Now I’m motivated to work towards beating it the next time we race.”
If you’re going to compare, take only positive energy from it.
6. At the same time, compete only with yourself
I’m not saying you should obsess over your competition. Vollmer is motivated by her competitors, but she doesn’t really worry about them.
The sport of swimming is still young enough that nothing’s been mastered, she says, and there’s plenty to improve within her own technique and approach.
Focus your effort on getting better. Your performance relative to others will take care of itself.
7. Reframe the “obstacles” of being a mom
In the culture of swimming, you simply don’t miss practices. Yet here Vollmer was, with another human being that required so much of her. Motherhood and career were seemingly at odds at times.
Vollmer took the tension as exciting. In the face of such a challenge, she found new strengths and got stronger, because, as she told me, “That’s what moms do. They rise to the occasion.” She saw that these newfound strengths post newborn could serve motherhood and her career.
In this way, she saw the challenges as helping her get to her goal versus being a deterrent to her goal.
So when those tests of motherhood start piling up and seeming at odds with the career, flip it. Believe that the challenges are happening for you, not to you.
8. Being scared gives you superpowers
When Vollmer told me this, I wanted to cheer.
She described how her adrenaline pops before big races and how she’s learned to channel that fear instead of fight it.
When you feel that familiar foe rising up inside you, be thankful for it.
Think of it as the cavalry arriving.
9. Even when others are body lengths ahead of you, remember that at least you’re in the pool
When Vollmer told me this, I wanted to give a standing ovation.
When she first got back to training after having Arlen, Vollmer used this mantra to keep things in perspective when she felt she wasn’t performing up to par with what she was used to.
Remember, half the battle is just being in the game. Plenty aren’t putting themselves out there and giving it a go quite like you are. Give yourself credit here.
10. Break down the pursuit into smaller goals
Vollmer looks at the 2020 Olympics as being infernally far away, so much so that it’s daunting to her. So she’s broken it down into two steps of sorts.
First, she wants to be in the best shape she can going into her second pregnancy. Then she can take it day by day, thus heading towards 2020 in a more manageable way.
You can break your lofty goals into manageable pieces too.
11. Nothing will ever be perfect
Not every practice, every race, or every day will be perfect. Part of Vollmer’s training regimen is getting mentally toughened and conditioned to respond as best she can on days when things seem to be going for the worse.
Treat your own version of days gone sideways as great training.
12. Your insecurities often aren’t rooted in reality
Dana Vollmer, strike that, Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer told me she felt fat in her bathing suit when she first returned to the pool post-baby.
Note: If Vollmer can feel that way, then I’ll feel like the U.S.S. Kentucky next time I’m at the water park.
She told me of having to get new swimsuits and how strange it was for her; she was in such a different place then she’d ever been in her life. She didn’t know if she even wanted to walk out to the pool.
But out she went, and as Vollmer put it, “You know what? The girls could care less. They just wanted me back as a person and for the energy I bring to the practices.”
So challenge yourself. Is what’s worrying you based on a real, or perceived consequence?
13. Draw from what matters, not what’s expected
When Vollmer missed the Olympic team in 2008, she realized she was crumbling under the expectations others had of her. “I was more afraid of letting everyone down then I was excited about making an Olympic team myself,” she told me.
In Rio, she says, she learned to stop worrying about the expectations and start living in the moment.
She thought of Arlen and how she’d want him to know that she enjoyed the Rio experience to the maximum. She described how she noticed how the mat felt under her feet, and how she listened to and marveled at the crowd all around her versus burying herself in her headphones.
She took it all in instead of letting it all take her under.
In your own high pressure moments, don’t focus on the expectations. Focus on the experience itself as it relates to what matters most to you.
14. Learn to love the journey
There are moments in your profession when you truly must shine. And there is substantial time in between those moments, which should be spent loving the journey.
For Vollmer, the next Olympics is four years away, with only one major competition each year until then, each 56 seconds in length.
She’s learned not to make it all about those testing moments in her career. She’s come to love the process of getting there — the practices, the improvements, the schedule, integrating work and family, the struggle of trying to balance it all.
So while you’re chugging towards your own destination points, enjoy the view.
15. Be a #MommaOnAMission
Vollmer started this rallying cry after Arlen was born.
It started with Vollmer wanting to get back into shape. But the hashtag is also about learning the little ways you can get wins along the way in your journey. It’s a feeling that moms are so much stronger then any of us knew that they were.
It’s about taking on the challenge of having a baby, yes, but also about loving the joy that the child brings into your life.
An inspiring mission possible.
So when the going gets tough in your own journey of parenting and profession, think of yourself as on a mission as well.
16. Forward. Always
In 2012, Vollmer began writing a word on her front foot in her starting position. When the starter said “Take your mark,” it would be the last thing she saw before diving into the pool.
For the prelims and semis at Rio, Vollmer wrote the word Forward.
In the pool, every movement she does must move her forward. In life, it’s no different.
Going into the finals, Vollmer switched it up. She wrote the word Arlen.
A wonderful thing to move forward for, and with.