David Plummer used to see only one way to the top of the podium. The former Gophers swimmer believed he wouldn’t make it unless he stripped away everything but his sport, putting the pursuit of fast times above all else.
Earlier this month, with 4-week-old son Ricky asleep on his chest, Plummer laughed at that thought. “I’m almost embarrassed at how long it took me to realize it,” he said. “But the better I try to do in every aspect of my life — as a dad, a husband, athlete, coach — the better everything goes.”
That surprising truth has become more and more clear over the past year. Heading into this week’s Olympic trials, Plummer is swimming faster than ever at age 30, riding the best results of his long career as he pursues his first berth on the Olympic team.
Three weeks ago in Indianapolis, Plummer swam a personal-best time of 52.40 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke — the fastest in the world this year — and he is the top seed at the trials in his signature event. That follows a 2015 campaign that included silver medals at three World Cup meets and his third appearance at the world championships.
To make the team for the Rio Olympics, Plummer must finish first or second in a race that NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines calls “the toughest event on the men’s schedule.” His competition includes 2012 Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers and college phenom Ryan Murphy. Four years ago in Omaha, Plummer finished third at the trials by just .12 seconds, the most painful defeat of his career.
He will return to the pool at CenturyLink Center with an entourage that includes his wife, former Gophers swimmer Erin (Forster) Plummer; sons Will, 2, and Ricky, born two weeks before David’s personal-record swim at the Arena Pro Swim Series Indianapolis; his mother, Kathy; and Erin’s parents, Richard and Pat. He also will have the long-distance support of the high school swim teams at Wayzata, where he is head coach of the boys, and Minnetonka, where he is a volunteer assistant for the girls.
“It’s been a huge factor in how well the last year has gone, for sure,” Plummer said of his rich, hectic life. “People think everything else would suffer, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all.
“When I’m at the pool, I’m present, getting my work done to the best of my ability. At home, I’m a little more able to put it away, which is great. It isn’t healthy to obsess over [swimming]. I feel really good, and not just physically.”
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Plummer and 18-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps are the only fathers on the men’s national team. Phelps said the May birth of his son, Boomer, was the best experience of his life, a feeling Plummer knows well.
Even during his heaviest training periods — when he spends 25 hours a week at the U’s Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center — Plummer is first and foremost a family man. Erin, a doctor in the midst of a neonatal fellowship at the U of M Medical Center, sometimes logs 80 to 90 hours a week at the hospital. David takes over as chief childcare provider and domestic engineer during those times; when he is away with the national team, Erin assumes the lead role at home.
They get extra help from a nanny, Erin’s mom and a local network of former U swimmers eager to aid one of their own. Plummer and his wife didn’t have a plan for meshing their two demanding careers with parenthood, but they have figured it out on the fly.
“I always thought David would keep swimming, because he’s so passionate about it,” Erin said. “That’s what’s most important to us, to follow your passion and do what you’re excited about. Our family and friends have been super supportive. With their help, we’ve been able to make it work.”
Plummer is equally grateful for the support he gets at his alma mater. He trains at the U with a group of other elite post-college swimmers, working closely with Gophers assistant coach Gideon Louw.
The two joined forces in 2014, after Plummer had the best individual result of his career: a silver medal in the 100 back at the 2013 world championships. Louw, a two-time Olympian for South Africa, swapped Plummer’s old routine of short, speed-focused workouts for a more traditional program with higher yardage. Training in a collaborative environment with Louw and Gophers head coach Kelly Kremer, Plummer has thrived, dropping his personal-best time twice since a disappointment at the world championships last August in Russia.
An anticipated breakthrough failed to materialize when Plummer got sick just before the meet. He lost 8 pounds and much of his energy, finishing eighth in the 50 back and ninth in the 100. Once he recovered from the illness, his strong training base propelled him to a standout fall season, culminating with a then-personal-best time of 52.51 in the 100 back at a World Cup meet in Dubai.
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Still, Plummer felt he hadn’t hit top speed. He welcomed a harder push from Louw during his next stretch of training, benefited from treatment for sleep apnea and lowered his personal mark again on June 4.
“David did a great job of regrouping after the world championships,” Louw said. “He just kept getting faster and faster and faster.
“It’s becoming a little more common for athletes in their mid-30s to keep training and performing well, but it’s still rare at that age to make as big a time drop as David has. He is driven, he is dialed in and he’s preparing for [the Olympic trials] in a very calm and collected way.”
That goes beyond his 7 a.m. training sessions and the weightlifting he does three times a week. Taking Will to the wading pool or swim lessons, or comforting Ricky when he cries, is also part of the process.
“When I’m not training or coaching, I’m home with these guys,” Plummer said. “I have a much better balance of things than I did in 2012. It makes a difference.”
Gaines, the NBC analyst, said the wealth of talent makes the men’s 100 back impossible to predict. Grevers won bronze at worlds and has a seed time of 52.54, .03 seconds behind Plummer. Murphy is a three-time NCAA champ in the 100-yard back who has swum 52.57.
“It’s going to be a beast to make it,” Gaines said. “Plummer is such an easy guy to pull for, because of how close he’s come in the past.”
After the last Olympic trials, Plummer felt compelled to keep swimming toward Rio. If he doesn’t make the team this time, he said, he knows he will be OK; fatherhood has taught him that life always moves forward, and often very quickly.
Still, by relishing all his roles, he has never felt closer to the top step of the podium.
“I’m very hungry for this,” he said. “I’ve done all the training. Everything is right where it needs to be.
“I feel great. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’m really excited to see what I can do.”