Tom Dolan admitted he was having, trouble breathing, last night,
but this time it wasn't just the asthma and the hot, heavy
Atlanta air that were contributing to his problem. This time
there was also the relentless pressure from an old Ann Arbor,
Mich., rival who refused to concede the top prize in the
400-meter individual medley to the cover boy for American
Eric Namesnik had spent countless hours in the University of
Michigan practice pool, working his way toward the Olympics and
measuring himself against the long, skinny kid in the next lane.
In the months leading up to the Summer Games, Namesnik stepped
around the TV cameras and dodged the reporters who clung to
Dolan like barnacles. He saw all the Dolan stories and all the
Dolan headlines, but somehow he never got the message that Dolan
was supposed to have a free pass to the gold medal.
Take list night, Namesnik pushed Dolan to the wall and turned
in a courageous effort, but in the end it was also a frustrating
one. In the last race of his swimming career, Namesnik was the
bridesmaid again to the young superstar next door. Dolan's time
of 4:14.90 was only .35 of a second better than Namesnik's. At
Namesnik's expense Dolan, who won the first gold medal for the
U.S. in these games, proved why he is the best in the world in
the 400 IM and why in at least one event he is every bit the
champion he was built up to be.
As they looked up at their times at the end of the race, Dolan
pumped his fist, as much in relief as in celebration, while
Namesnik flung his head into the water in frustration.
July 21, 1996
"My goal was to win the gold because people are always telling
me I'm second fiddle," Namesnik said later. "I just tried to
swim as hard as I could. I was seeded first going into the
finals, but I knew the competition would come from Tom. I just
hoped it would come down to the two of us."
The two of them. As always. For three years Michigan's Fab Two
went at it on a daily basis in Ann Arbor, and while they have
never been good friends, they know they have made each other
better. Sometimes Dolan won in practice. Sometimes Namesnik won.
Sometimes it was too close to call. "We pushed each other hard,"
said Namesnik. "Hopefully I've made him better."
Dolan, at 20, is five years younger than Namesnik, who also won
a silver in the 400 IM in Barcelona in '92. They were never
teammates at Michigan, but they couldn't help but become fierce
rivals. During grueling training sessions at the Michigan pool,
they have been known to shout at each other. After last night's
race the two didn't even shake hands until they stood on the
medal stand, a striking difference from the aftermath of other
races when total strangers routinely embrace like old friends.
"I don't think either of us would be in the place we are today
if we didn't have each other in the pool every day, " said
Dolan. "I learned a lot from Eric, and I lucky to have him
pushing me. Anytime you go through the kind of training we do,
you're going to have rough edges. But with all the pressure
we've been under, we were able to work together and get along."
Aside from the Blue and Maize in their and a passion for the
pool, Dolan and Namesnik have little in common. Namesnik is a
clean-cut. soft-spoken former kinesiology major who has to buy
his own sneakers. Even before his first Olympics, Dolan has
landed an endorsement deal with Nike worth more than $100,000 a
year. He is a cocky rap-music fan who, while he shaved his
goatee for the occasion, didn't remove his earring for his
Olympic debut. "When you get two of the top guys in the world
in the pool together, you're bound to have a little stress,"
said Namesnik. "But now our relationship will be a little better
because I'll be standing on the deck telling him what to do
instead of having someone tell me what to do."
'Together for the last time, Dolan and Namesnik waged a stirring
battle in the marquee event of last night's show, swimming in
adjacent lanes and exchanging the lead throughout while sending
an electric charge through the crowd at the Georgia Tech Aquatic
Center. As usual, Dolan was was simply too strong at the end,
although he came up almost three seconds short of his own world
record, which he set in Rome in '94. For a man who had received
so much pre-games attention, the victory was finally a chance to
relax and take a breath, or at least try to.
"I was definitely hurting when I hit the wall," said Dolan, who
will also compete this week in the 400 free and the 200 IM.
"But when you come to the Olympics, you're just thinking of
winning medals. Regardless of how I felt or what my time was, I
won a gold medal and that was my goal."
Fellow U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard had the same goal, but at only
14, she was not at all disappointed to take home the silver in
the women's 100 breaststroke. With a time of 1:08.09 Beard set
an American record, although she was overshadowed by South
Africa's Penelope Heyns, who set a world record (1:07.02) in the
morning preliminaries and returned last night to take the gold.
As you would expect from barely a teenager in her Olympic debut,
Beard was ecstatic just to step on to the medal stand. "I
wasn't sorry at all," she said. "It was a fun race."
The team of Josh Davis, Joe Hudepohl, Bradley Schumacher and
Ryan Berube grabbed the U.S.'s second gold medal in the final
event of the evening, the men's 4x200 freestyle relay. In the
women's 200 free Claudia Poll of Costa Rica upset world record
holder Franziska van Almsick of Germany.
Long after the events were over and the Aquatic Center was dark,
Namesnik stood near the pool and looked back with conflicting
emotions on the last race in a lifetime full of races. He was
the second best in the world but still only the second best in
"Everybody says it's cutthroat between Tom and me, and it was a
difficult situation," said Namesnik. "I had the American
record for four years and then Tom took it. Then he got the
world record. We trained against each other every day, and you
don't do that without hard feelings. Hopefully it will be
different now that I'm retired."
Hopefully for Dolan, this was only the beginning, now that he is
an Olympic champion.