At first glance he seems to be the work of some mad marine
biologist bent on creating the ideal swimmer. Tom Dolan is as
long and lean as an eel, with a wingspan that stretches halfway
across the pool and a body-fat count that measures all of 3%. He
stands 6'6", weighs 180 pounds in a wet Speedo, and trains as
if the second-place finisher gets fed to the sharks.
Swimming, quite literally, comes more naturally to Dolan than
breathing, which makes his accomplishments even more astonishing.
At the NCAA championships last week in Indianapolis, Dolan set
three American records and led Michigan to its first national
title in 34 years. As always, he did it while struggling just to
catch his breath.
Dolan, a sophomore from Arlington, Va., has exercise-induced
asthma and an unusually narrow esophagus that allows him only 20%
of the oxygen intake of the average person. These conditions make
it hard for Dolan to breathe, which might not present a problem if
he were on the chess team. However, he is arguably the best male
swimmer in the U.S. His remarkable success has led his rivals to
one conclusion: He must be growing gills.
``It can really get bad in our workouts,'' says Dolan. ``There
will be a real tightness in my chest, and I won't be able to get a
lot of air. But my coach says it actually helps me in meets
because it increases my ability to withstand stress.''
April 2, 1995
``He has an incredible tolerance for pain,'' says Michigan coach
Jon Urbanchek, who swam for the Wolverines the last time they won
the NCAAs. ``So he does suffer, but there is a good side.''
The results seem to support Urbanchek's theory. Last September,
only days after the esophagus defect had been diagnosed, Dolan
broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley at the
world championships in Rome. He was 18 years old, the youngest
male member of the U.S. team, and competing in his first major
international meet. He said he thought he would have a good time,
see the world, meet some terrific swimmers and maybe bring home a
medal. Instead, he broke Tamas Darnyi of Hungary's mark and
introduced himself as a bright new star. ``I came out with so much
confidence,'' says Dolan. ``I thought, Well, maybe I can compete
with these guys.''
Back in campus pools this winter Dolan made his competitors look
like manatees. In his specialty events, he lost only once. He was
named Big Ten swimmer of the year for the second time.
Last week in Indianapolis, Dolan set the three U.S. records in
three days, and he did it with flair, destroying the old marks in
the 500 freestyle (by 2.84 seconds), the 400 individual medley (by
2.46 seconds) and the 1,650 freestyle (by 5.7 seconds). He also
joined three Michigan teammates in winning the 800 freestyle
relay. If the races didn't wear him out, lugging home all the
trophies surely did. His performance has swimming fans buzzing
across the country.
``Usually you see records broken by 10ths of a second,'' says
Urbanchek. ``He broke them by two or three seconds.''
``I was in a zone,'' Dolan says. ``It might not be like
basketball, where you go on a hot shooting streak, but you
definitely get your confidence up, and you feel like no one can
Dolan became the first person to establish three NCAA records in
the same championships since Matt Biondi did it in 1987. After
last week's meet Dolan was named NCAA swimmer of the year, an
honor that seems to have made his collegiate career complete. He
will spend two more years in Ann Arbor, working toward a degree in
economics, but his mind will soon wander in the direction of
Atlanta, site of the '96 Summer Olympics. Already some observers
believe Dolan could emerge as another Mark Spitz, a charismatic
guy who can climb out of the pool and into an ad campaign,
carrying his sport with him.
``He's the best,'' says Urbanchek, who was an assistant coach on
the U.S. team at Barcelona. ``He's got the body, the desire, the
competitive instinct. Put it all together, and you've got a
When he isn't in the pool, Dolan likes to spin records for his
roommates. He is an aspiring disc jockey with a penchant for rap
and a self-dubbed nickname: MC Mass Confusion. He says he isn't
sure what he will do when he gets out of school, but he wouldn't
object to swimming his way to fame and fortune.
``In other countries swimmers are making tremendous amounts of
money,'' says Dolan. ``I'd love to be able to do that in America,
but there are so many other sports in the U.S., and so many
other things to do.''
Dolan started swimming at a country club in Arlington when he was
five, but he always played other sports as well. Maybe that's why
Dolan still enjoys each day in the water, though some days are
better than others. In the summer his numerous allergies, which
exacerbate his asthma, can make him feel as if he is training with
an anchor around his neck. His brutal workout regimen also makes
his asthmatic condition worse. Each day he faces the same dilemma:
whether to swim harder or breathe easier.
He is limited in the medications he can use to treat his asthma
because many drugs that aid breathing are on the NCAA and Olympic
banned lists. But he keeps his inhaler handy, and this season he
even resorted to the latest rage in sports: an adhesive strip
across the nose to help with breathing.
``There are times when I stop and say, Is this really worth it?''
he says. ``Like last summer. It was one of the worst summers I
ever had. I had all kinds of trouble breathing. Then I go to the
world championships and break the record. So you never know. I
just try to relax and not worry. I can't widen my esophagus, so
One night early this season the entire Michigan team was worried
about its star. The Wolverines had traveled to Hawaii during
Christmas vacation, and as usual Dolan was pushing hard in
practice. At one point he climbed out of the pool and passed out.
``I thought, Oh, my god, he's going to die on me,'' says
Urbanchek. ``But he had just hyperventilated because of all the
coughing. The next day he was back in the pool.''
Dolan has been in the pool just about every day since then, and
he'll likely be there until it's time to take a lane in Atlanta.
He might not have the lungs or the esophagus, but he's got the
heart of a champion. There's always a chance he'll grow weary of
the pain and the agony and give up swimming, but you know what
they say. Don't hold your breath.