The car was stuck in the Atlanta traffic. A line of red brake
lights was ahead, no opening in sight. The first gold medal won
by a U.S. athlete at the XXVI Olympic Summer Games was stuffed
nicely in Tom Dolan's gym bag, wrapped in his red-white-and-blue
warmup jacket, but this was a first lesson that you can't eat
gold medals, kid. He was hungry. Claudia was hungry.
"I have to get something to eat," he said to the driver for the
58th time. "Are we going to be able to eat when we get there?"
"Claudia has to get something to eat," he said, also for the
58th time. "She really has to get something to eat. She has to
swim in the morning. Can she eat while I'm doing the interview?"
The destination on Sunday night was the NBC studio at the
International Broadcast Center, where Dolan was supposed to do
the obligatory chat with host Bob Costas. The time was edging
closer and closer to 11 o'clock, and the demands had not stopped
in the two hours since his hand touched the wall at the end of
the men's 400 individual medley, .35 of a second in front of
teammate Eric Namesnik's hand. This was the postrace spin of a
champion. Apparently foodless. His girlfriend, Spanish swimmer
Claudia Franco, was taking the ride with him.
July 28, 1996
"Are you O.K.?" he said from the front seat of the car.
"I'm fine," Claudia, who was part of the Spanish 4x100-meter
freestyle relay that failed to make the final the next day,
said. "No problem."
A reporter also was in the backseat and had been asking
questions. How many Dolans had been at the race? Maybe 30. Had
he had a chance to see them? Only for a second. He had been able
to vault the fence and shake their hands not long after the
medal ceremony. When would he see them again? Probably not until
Friday, after he swam in his five possible remaining events.
"At the end of the race, Eric swam back down the course and sort
of hung on the rope," the reporter said, bringing the
conversation back to the race again and bringing up Namesnik's
name for the 58th time. "You swam out to him and shook his hand.
Did you say anything to him?"
"I don't know, I don't know what I did," Dolan said and paused.
"You're really working this thing with Eric and me, aren't you?"
he asked. "Is that the story here?"
The reporter said it probably was. Probably was? Two teammates
who didn't like each other, placed in adjoining lanes, swimming
almost as two congruent figures, virtually synchronized, faster
than everyone else in the world, swimming the same race they had
swum almost every day for the past three years, .35 of a second
difference at the end...yes, that was the story.
"I guess," Dolan said from the front seat in the traffic jam in
the middle of the best night of his life. His rival still rode
with him. One last time.
Eric and Tom. Tom and Eric. They had covered themselves in
sandpaper in order to live so close for so long. The only way
they could rub against each other was the wrong way. They had
helped each other so much, yet shared so little. Eric and Tom.
Different. Tom and Eric. Adversaries of proportions found only
in some Elizabethan tragedy. Going for the same faraway but
attainable prize. Swimming in the same water. Showering in the
same showers. Every day.
"They would kill each other with their eyes every day, if you
know what I mean," Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek says. "They
would give each other dirty looks. They wouldn't talk at all,
but they would race every day. Twice a day."
Eric was the resident prince, the logical successor to a couple
of thrones. He was the hard worker, the churner from Butler,
Pa., smallish for his event at 6'1", 170 pounds, but with "a
great engine," according to his coach. He had spent his time in
waiting at Michigan behind breaststroker Mike Barrowman, the
star and 1992 Olympic gold medal winner in Barcelona. Eric had
had also spent his time in waiting for his event, finishing
second at the '92 Games to Tomas Darnyi of Hungary. Barrowman
was retired. Darnyi was retired. Wasn't this now Eric's time?
Tom was the newcomer at the school, the hotshot recruit.
Six-foot-six, 180 pounds, he was a torpedo. He had spoken with
Urbanchek for the first time only two weeks after Barcelona, a
high school star from Arlington, Va., choosing Michigan largely
because, well, largely because Eric was already there. What
better daily measuring rod could possibly be found for the 400
IM than the best 400 IM swimmer in the United States? This
didn't mean the measuring would be a gentle process.
"Eric was older," Dolan said. "I was a freshman, but I didn't
want to go through all that freshman stuff. I didn't do what
those older guys wanted. I was my own person. I didn't think I
deserved to go through that."
Eric was quiet, never smiled much, already graduated and his
eligibility used up by the time Tom arrived, but still training
with Club Wolverine to prepare for Atlanta, after which he
planned to retire. Tom was noisy, confident, good. There was a
five-year difference in ages. Eric was tuned to easy-listening
music and wanted to be a coach in the future. Tom wanted to be
...what? He liked rap music and called himself MC Mass Confusion
when he played disc jockey for pals at school. He wore an
earring. Grew a goatee.
There was a time, early, when Eric was in control. He had set
the American record for the 400 IM four times, all before Tom
arrived at Michigan. The last time came in a heat at the 1993
summer nationals; in the final, Eric beat Tom to win the
national title. But Tom was improving. In the spring nationals
of '94 he broke Eric's record, and in the world championships in
Rome that summer he set a world record of 4:12.30. He became the
It all seemed so easy. He was glib and loose and successful. He
had a tidy background story: a swimming star afflicted with
asthma. He described at the press conferences after setting his
records how it was so hard sometimes for him to breathe. A
triumph over adversity. Eric sat next to him, breathing fine,
silver or bronze, listening to the story again and again. Once
in a while he was asked a question.
Eric still had his moments--he was the fastest 400 IM qualifier
at the trials for the 1994 worlds and he won the '95 summer
nationals--but the big publicity rush was for Tom. He was media
magic. He was the winner, the world-record holder. Eric mostly
was the champion of lanes 7 and 8 at Canham Natatorium in Ann
Arbor, where they practiced.
"They'd race every day," teammate and Olympic breaststroker Eric
Wunderlich, Namesnik's friend, said on Sunday night. "I'd say
Eric won seven out of 10. Then, again, there was all that filthy
chlorine in the Michigan pool, and maybe Tom's asthma would kick
up. I don't know."
"I tried to spread them around in meets, not have them face each
other except in big meets," Urbanchek said. "But in practice,
they were very, very competitive. There was no blood in the
pool, but it was a fierce, fierce rivalry. What happened was
that Eric won a lot, but Tom usually won the biggest races."
In the heats on Sunday morning in Atlanta--the last day the two
would ever race each other--the fastest qualifier was Eric at
4:16.21. Tom was third at 4:17.66. This, however, was only more
of lanes 7 and 8. Eric, as usual, swam as fast as he could in
the heats. The churner. Tom, as usual, saved himself for the
final. The talent. Different approaches. Different people.
"If had to root for someone in the final...I really couldn't
choose," Urbanchek said. "Tom is just so good, but Eric is like
a son. He has been at Michigan for eight years. No one has done
more for Michigan swimming than Eric. I suppose I would like
Eric, simply because it is his last chance. Tom will have other
The men's 400 IM final was the first U.S. showpiece of the
Olympics. Two Americans. Dominant in one discipline. There was a
1-2 strength here that did not exist for the U.S. in many events
in any sport, certainly not in the pool. "I sat down to watch
next to [U.S. assistant coach] Mark Schubert," Urbanchek said.
"He said I must feel like I was watching a practice race with my
own team, except here it was the Olympics."
What would happen? The results in the first three days of
swimming--one day before this race, one after--showed that
anything, everything could happen in any race. Form did not
Ireland's 26-year-old Michelle Smith was off on a controversial
roll, taking the 400 IM and 400 freestyle gold medals in times
that she never had approached in two earlier Olympics. Drugs?
Not drugs? It was noted that her husband of six weeks and
trainer of three years, Erik de Bruin, had tested positive for
steroids as a discus thrower for the Netherlands three years
ago. Countering, Smith said she had been repeatedly tested for
drugs in recent months and come up clean every time. The debate
had begun. The Chinese women--with the exception of 100
freestyle champion Le Jingyi--were off to a bad start, not
approaching previous times. Not drugs? Bad drugs? American
swimming diva Janet Evans, a slow second in a slow heat, did not
even qualify for the 400 free final. Done? A world record came
from a Belgian, Fred Deburghgraeve, a time of 1:00.60 in the 100
breaststroke in a qualifying heat. Qualifying heat? He won the
final, although he took .05 of a second longer to do it.
The Americans enjoyed early success in relays, winning both the
men's 4x200-meter freestyle and the women's 4x100-meter free.
Individually, there were events in which gold had been a
possibility--Gary Hall Jr. in the 100 free, Amanda Beard in the
100 breaststroke, Allison Wagner in the 400 IM, Tom Malchow in
the 200-meter butterfly--but silver was the answer. Champions
were from Russia (Aleksandr Popov and Denis Pankratov), South
Africa (Penelope Heyns), Ireland (Smith).
The only other race in which the U.S. evinced the same early
U.S. dominance as Dolan versus Namesnik came on the third day:
Fifteen-year-old Beth Botsford of Timonium, Md., beat
25-year-old Whitney Hedgepeth of Colonial Heights, Va., in the
100-meter backstroke. The women, however, were different. They
were friends. Hedgepeth was Botsford's mentor. "We got together
last week," Botsford said. "We decided we would go 1-2 for the
Namesnik and Dolan got together and decided nothing. They simply
Eric's hope was to move out fast. Tom's strength is his
freestyle finish. Eric had to build a big lead before that leg,
especially on the first two legs, the butterfly and the
backstroke. He simply didn't do it.
Tom was ahead at the end of the fly by .21 of a second, but when
he and Eric touched at the end of the backstroke--swimming in
lanes 3 and 4--they were in a dead heat at 2:02.87. It didn't
matter. The race was done. The crowd of almost 15,000 made a lot
of noise and the television pictures showed the closest of
races, with Eric pushing ahead of Tom by .44 of a second at the
end of the breaststroke leg. But everyone who knew the situation
could predict that Tom would be the winner when he caught Eric
in the final 50 meters of the freestyle. His final time was
4:14.90. Eric's time was 4:15.25.
Eric swam to his lonely spot on the rope, down the lane, left
with the sight of the scoreboard and numbers he never could
change. Tom looked at the crowd and raised the index finger on
his right hand. Number 1. The applause again was for him.
"Eric looked so disappointed on the victory stand," Urbanchek
said. "It's funny about silver. Gustavo Borges of Brazil had
silver the other night [on Saturday, in the 200-meter
freestyle], and you could see his happiness just flow out of
him. Eric, I think that when he watches films of this 20 years
from now he will wish that he had smiled more on the stand.
Silver is a great accomplishment."
Eric did not believe that. Not now. As Tom was dragged here and
there, hungry and jubilant, the television people finding the
car to take Claudia and him to the interview with Costas--wait a
minute, Katie Couric wants a few words with him before he
goes--Eric talked quietly underneath the stands of the Aquatic
Center. He told how he had started swimming as a kid because his
sister was a swimmer and she brought home these little plastic
trophies. He was six years old. He wanted those little trophies.
He had been swimming for 19 years.
"I was trying for the gold medal tonight," he said. "It didn't
The fact was pointed out that silver was a good medal. Maybe he
hadn't won, but he had beaten everyone else in the world. Hadn't
"Yeah," Eric Namesnik said, "everyone except one."