LONDON – Four years later, Dana Vollmer has been set free.
A stratospheric talent who crashed in the U.S. Olympic trials four years ago and missed the 2008 Beijing Games entirely, Vollmer seized gold in world-record fashion Sunday. The favorite in the 100-meter butterfly set Olympic and U.S. records in the event in her preliminary heat, then rewrote the world record Sunday night, finishing in 55.98 seconds.
It's a sweet victory that erases cruel memories of 2008, when Vollmer says she "crumbled" under expectations in the trials, finishing fifth in the 100-meter butterfly, seventh in the 200 freestyle, and missing the finals of the 50 and 100 free completely. Repeatedly beset by injuries, the tumble off the U.S. squad left a mental dent that took four years to repair -- leading to Sunday, when Vollmer summarily released four years of Olympic frustration.
"After 2008, it took me a little to make the transition to even know that I wanted to swim again," Vollmer said. "As soon as I decided that, [I knew] I did love the sport and I loved competing.
"I think it took not making '08 for me to realize I can do this a different way and that I need to change not only my mental approach to racing, but what I am doing for training."
Enter the warmth and exclusion of Fiji, where Vollmer was essentially stashed away by her University of California coach, Teri McKeever, for the entire 2008 Olympics. It was half rehabilitation and half witness protection -- to refresh Vollmer's love for her sport and to shield her from seeing what she may have missed in Beijing. A place where Vollmer could swim in the open ocean, including one open-water race, and let go of the feeling that she had disappointed those around her.
"We just felt like we needed to get her out of the United States and, for lack of a better way of putting it, her own pity party," McKeever said. "She doesn't even know what happened in the  Olympics."
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It was that trip that began to change everything for Vollmer, changing how she approached the sport and dealt with all of the pitfalls that came with it. And that was no small task. Vollmer had years of set pathways to work through. This was a woman who made her first Olympic trials at 12 years old and her first Olympic team in the 2004 Athens Games at 17. She won two relay gold medals in the 2004 world championships, then defaulted on all of the expectations that she would be one of the elite U.S. women in Beijing. In a word, this path had led to a feeling of "doom," Vollmer said. And the retreat to the solitude of Fiji became a necessary refuge.
"I got to do an open-water race for the first time, and it just really made me realize that I loved being in the water, and I loved swimming, and I had a blast doing that open-water swim," Vollmer said. "It made me realize that [the biggest issues were] the injuries and the training and the pressure that I was putting on myself mentally. I look back to 2008 and I wasn't excited to race and compete. I was more worried about what happened if I failed, and who did I let down, and how that would look for Teri and my hometown.
"I crumbled under that. I couldn't take that all on."
And thus began a four-year reprogramming -- learning that she could survive injuries, that she needed to conquer a food allergy, and that expectations needed to be detached from simply loving her time in the water. The rebuild was steady and efficient, and culminated in a turning point at the 2012 trials. Confronted with a bout of strep throat on the first day of competition -- and lingering memories of 2008 -- Vollmer adapted and put on a clinic in her butterfly event. She swam like someone who could not only win a gold medal, but also deliver a world record, too.
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It was the realization of a message McKeever had delivered to Vollmer one year before the 2012 trials.
"[I told her,] 'It doesn't matter what you feel like, we're going to do it, so you better figure out a way to get it done,'" McKeever said. "In the past, that [strep throat] would have really derailed her. And it was just like matter-of-fact: [She said,] 'Teri, I have a sore throat. I think I need to have somebody look at it,' and didn't make it a distraction. She's really learned how to take whatever life has given her and know she can deal with it."
Four years later, the menace of failure is gone. As Vollmer said of the pool on Sunday, "It's calm and flat and full of potential."
Some of that was captured Sunday. And unlike her long-distance sojourn in 2008, she only had to go 100 meters to realize it.
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