David Volenec rolled down Sorensen Parkway in his police cruiser, belting the notes to a song he knew by heart. This was his rehearsal.
His Sunday shift at the Northwest Precinct had been hectic until 4:45 p.m., when the sergeant changed into his kilt and headed downtown to the CenturyLink Center.
Volenec has sung the national anthem dozens of times in his hometown. At business luncheons and UNO hockey games, at 9/11 memorials and graduation ceremonies. One year, he sang on fireworks night at Rosenblatt Stadium. That was a big one.
But none quite like this: opening night of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. The gig had been on his calendar for a month and Volenec was nervous. He’s always nervous, never because of the crowd.
“I just wanna make sure I do that song justice.”
Just before 7 p.m., the arena lights went dark and the pool glimmered beneath the scoreboard. The Omaha Police Department’s pipe and drum corps appeared under spotlight at the north end of the deck.
The crowd rose and heard the opening notes of “America the Beautiful” on bagpipes. One time through, then another as the corps approached the south end, where an American flag waved on a giant screen.
Sgt. Volenec broke away from the bagpipers and grabbed the microphone, his baritone voice starting steady and strong.
“Oh say can you see! By the dawn’s early ...”
The microphone crackled for a second. Then it stopped. The speakers went silent.
When you sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for 12 years, you face the occasional technical difficulty. But Volenec has never experienced a dead mic so early in the song. He didn’t stop.
“What so proudly we hailed ...”
That’s when he heard the most amazing thing: 13,426 voices in his ears, spontaneously and without hesitation.
“AT THE TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING. WHOSE BROAD STRIPES AND BRIGHT STARS.”
It went on like this for another minute. The people couldn’t hear Volenec’s voice, but they could see his lips on the scoreboard screen. Volenec believes in a traditional anthem. No surprises. No personal twists. They followed his tempo perfectly.
Ali Harrison, a breaststroke competitor from Ventura, California, joined the chorus from section 218, taking a 10-second video on her phone.
“I was smiling so much my cheeks hurt the rest of the night,” she said.
When the arena reached “the home of the brave,” the applause began and continued as Volenec joined the corps and exited the pool deck.
The Swim Trials are one of the city’s most-coveted events and the Omaha Sports Commission leaves nothing to chance. Planning begins years in advance. National anthem singers are coordinated months ahead.
But the truth is, you can’t control everything, said Harold Cliff, who oversees the Trials. Sometimes you have to improvise. Sometimes you get a little help.
“Only in America would you not miss a note,” Cliff said.
Sunday night’s first race featured Chase Kalisz’s thrilling win in the 400 individual medley. Jay Litherland chased down Ryan Lochte for second place and an Olympic spot. The crowd roared again, but Volenec didn’t hear it.
As he drove back up Sorensen Parkway, his mind was on the anthem. One of the biggest crowds of his singing career and the fans barely heard a word. Disappointing? No.
“Personally, I think it would be, I want to think of the right term ... I think it would be pretty selfish of me to be upset because a microphone didn’t work when I was singing a song that I don’t sing for me anyway.
“Really I was just there to lead the crowd. They did a great job.”
At the Northwest Precinct, the 18-year OPD veteran is responsible for a crew, answering radio calls and managing crime scenes. When he walked in at 8 p.m., the place was so busy he didn’t have time to tell anybody what had happened.
He changed out of his kilt and went back to work.
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