Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer to speak at 2016 winter commencement

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Update 11/30/16: This article has been updated to include an interview with Dana Vollmer.

When UC Berkeley’s winter graduating class of 2016 gathers for commencement next month at Haas Pavilion, the campus hopes to add a little extra gold to the sea of students in blue and yellow.

Dana Vollmer, an Olympic swimmer and gold medalist, will be the keynote speaker for the winter commencement ceremony, the campus announced earlier this month.

Vollmer, 29, swam for UC Berkeley as a student and became the first American swimmer to earn a gold medal after giving birth.

After competing in the summer games in Athens and London, she thought she was ready to retire from swimming. But with the birth of her first child in 2015, Vollmer dove back into training while raising her new son. Eventually, she earned a spot on the U.S. team at the Rio Olympics this summer, where she won a bronze, silver and gold medal and helped set an American record in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.

Vollmer graduated in 2010 but still comes to campus everyday to train with the Cal Women Swimming team. She said she felt incredibly honored when she received the email especially because it’s UC Berkeley’s commencement.

“(UC Berkeley is) just such an amazing place to work everyday,” Vollmer told the Daily Californian. “It’s hard to sum up even all the things you get from going to an university like Cal. You come out, it’s one of those schools where you can’t just skirt along and just get by.”

The student group who helps advise during the speaker selection, the Californians’ December commencement committee, drafted up a ranked list of 20 potential candidates for campus approval, according to the group’s student director Dianne Chung. After every speaker on the first list said they could not speak, however, the committee nominated five more speakers, including Vollmer and First Lady Michelle Obama.

According to Chung, the committee first choice was J.K. Rowling and in its discussion of speakers, the committee tried to avoid political controversy, referencing the controversial selection of political comedian Bill Maher — who had made criticizing comments about Islam — for the 2014 winter commencement.

The final decision to invite Vollmer was made by Danielle Wiskerson, who works in University Development and Alumni Relations and is the event manager for the ceremony.

“She has an inspiring story to share with our graduates, which is what we look for,” Wiskerson said. “She’s an alum, she’s an Olympian, she’s a mother.”

Graduating campus senior Tomas Mournian will be the event’s student speaker. He returned to UC Berkeley in 2014 after attending in the late ’80s. When one of his classmates died of AIDS, Mournian left to dedicate himself to helping AIDS patients and working as a journalist.

On Dec. 18, he will graduate with an interdisciplinary studies major. Mournian said he was inspired to speak after the recent presidential election and wants to share a cautionary but uplifting message with the graduates.

“For me, it’s a huge personal accomplishment, it’s like closing a circle,” Mournian said. “People work really, really hard to get into Cal and to finish.”

Campus transfer student Jasmine Sadeghan will be singing the national anthem at the commencement ceremony, a dream she said she has had since she was little.

Even though she’s given a lot of speeches before, Vollmer said she still feels nervous but is excited for a challenge. She said the main goal of her speech is to emphasize the importance of student’s perspective in determining their success anywhere.

“Over the years of my swimming career there were the different challenges,” Vollmer said. “Successes followed by setbacks, that kind of rollercoaster applies to any dream or pursuit you have in life.”

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @malinisramaiyer.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article misquoted Dana Vollmer as saying that UC Berkeley is “one of those schools where you can just skirt along and just get by.” In fact, Vollmer said UC Berkeley is “one of those schools where you can’t just skirt along and just get by.”