On the bad days, the best swimmer in the U.S. just tries to stay
afloat. When the air grows thin, the walls close in and those
familiar black spots spin around in his head, Tom Dolan doesn't
think about setting records or winning medals. He only hopes to
reach the end of the pool before losing consciousness.
At times Dolan, the world-record holder in the 400-meter
individual medley, is forced by the effects of his
exercise-induced asthma--effects exacerbated by the unusual
narrowness of his windpipe, which allows him only 20% of the
oxygen intake of the average person--to cling to the lane ropes,
like some frantic shipwreck survivor, as everything goes dark.
"I always make it to the side of the pool," says Dolan,
"although sometimes I'm not sure how."
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in March, Dolan
overcame both his breathing difficulties and a case of chronic
fatigue to win three events. He arrives in Atlanta as the U.S.
swimmer with the best shot at winning a gold medal in each of
several individual events; he's the clear favorite in the 400 IM
and one of the favorites in the 200 IM and the 400 freestyle. If
all goes well, Dolan could emerge as a star of the Games, for
his personality as well as for his medals. Who says swimmers are
about as much fun as water in the ear? Dolan is an outgoing,
earring-wearing, rap music aficionado who, when he is not
gasping for air, is usually laughing or smiling or talking a
Dolan has learned to live with his asthma, and his coaches have
learned to keep an inhaler by the edge of the pool to revive him
when he passes out during one of his maniacal workouts. Lots of
athletes will tell you they train until they drop. Dolan means it.
July 21, 1996
"That is one thing that worries me," says Tom's father, Bill. "I
tell him, 'You must have certain sensations before you pass out.
I want you to recognize them and stop swimming before it
happens.' Hey, it's great to have the fire and the desire, but I
also want him to have a little common sense."
The 20-year-old Dolan never has had much use for common sense.
It just gets in the way. The truth is, if he didn't swim
competitively, he might not even have known he had asthma,
which in his case is induced solely by exertion. But the way
Dolan sees it, his breathing difficulties, which arise only in
training sessions, actually benefit him by making him work
harder than his rivals do. "Every day I'm in the pool, I know
I'm getting more out of it than if I were able to breathe
normally," he says. "So there's a bright side to it. It
definitely increases my tolerance for pain and forces me to
endure a little more than anyone else."
Some swimmers are born with great lungs; Dolan had to settle for
everything else. He is as long and lean as an eel. He stands
6'6", weighs 180 and has 3% body fat. His arms stretch to hands
that look like canoe paddles, and if his feet (size 14) were any
bigger, they could be classified as flippers. In the water Dolan
covers 50 meters with an awesome combination of grace and power,
the way Julius Erving finished a fast break. The mere mortal in
the next lane is often left to wonder, What's the use? "I never
worry about who's around me in the pool," says Dolan. "I know if
I do what I can do, nobody is going to be next to me at the end."
Indeed, swimming has always seemed to come more naturally to
Dolan than breathing. He learned the sport at age five at a
country club in his hometown of Arlington, Va. At 15, he won
three titles at the junior nationals and made the senior
nationals in three events. In 1994, when he was 18 and the
youngest male member of the U.S. team, he set the world record
in the 400 IM while winning the event at the world championships
Dolan, who will enter his senior year at Michigan next fall, has
already completed a dazzling college swimming career. In his
three seasons of competition--he has given up his final season
of eligibility to pursue endorsements--he set three U.S. records
and was twice named NCAA swimmer of the year.
"And he's only going to get better," says Rick Curl, coach of
the Washington, D.C.-based Curl-Burke swim club, to which Dolan
has belonged since he was 14. "A lot of swimmers burn out after
a while, but I don't see a hint of Tom being tired of the
competition. He just hates to lose so much. We came up with an
expression to describe his attitude. We call it 'zero-flat.'
That's Tom's goal. Once he records a time of zero-flat, he'll
hang up the suit."
Dolan's talent is exceeded only by his determination. At
Michigan an average practice day for the team included four
hours in the pool, and Dolan swam every lap as if he were in the
Olympics. "Tom just doesn't know how to slow down," says
Wolverine coach Jon Urbanchek, who is also an Olympic assistant
coach. "This is what makes him great, and also what gets him in
trouble. He can push his psychological limits almost as far as
his physiological limits."
When Dolan took last fall off from school to focus on his
training for the U.S. trials, his routine became even more
grueling, and he passed out in the Michigan pool twice. Then,
after three weeks in Colorado Springs for altitude training, he
returned to classes and to the Big Ten schedule, but something
wasn't right. He looked worn out, and his resting heart rate
soared from about 50 beats per minute to 100. He spent a day in
a hospital undergoing tests that determined that he was
suffering from chronic fatigue. He only competed in two relays
in the Big Ten championships, which were won by Minnesota,
breaking a string of 10 straight titles for Michigan.
To give his body a chance to recover, Dolan stayed out of the
pool for a full 72 hours, an eternity by his standards. "I
thought we'd make it to the trials without a breakdown," says
Urbanchek, "but he just extended his body beyond what it could
Dolan put all worries to rest in his first event of the trials
by swimming the 400 IM in 4:12.72, the fastest time ever in the
U.S. and the third-fastest in history. He was nearly two seconds
ahead of world-record pace after 300 meters, but he eased up and
saved his strength for his later events. He repeated the
strategy in winning the 400 free, slowing in the final 50 meters
and settling for a 3:48.99, the second-fastest clocking ever by
an American. In the 200 IM, he won in 2:00.20, only .09 off the
U.S. record. Dolan finally ran out of steam in the 200
backstroke, his last event, in which he finished seventh.
Five weeks after the trials Dolan signed a two-year contract
with Nike and forfeited his remaining college eligibility. The
decision was not difficult. In the U.S., a world-class swimmer
has a small window of opportunity to cash in his winning ticket,
and Dolan didn't hesitate to step up with his. One of the first
perks of the deal was a trip to Nike headquarters in Beaverton,
Ore., and a shopping spree at the company store. Tom and Bill
filled two shopping carts with swoosh-covered apparel. Forget
the paycheck. Dolan now has a closet full of black hightops and
a different cap to wear backward for each day of the month.
Although Dolan played golf and basketball as a kid, by his
sophomore year in high school the pool commanded his full
attention. He says "90 percent" of the boys he competed against
in high school have long since given up the punishing life of
competitive swimming. Only the strong or the obsessed survive,
and Dolan qualifies on both counts. "I often wonder what I'm
doing busting my ass in the water 10 times a week," says Dolan.
"I've got a couple of friends on the [Michigan] hockey team.
They're the biggest chick magnets on campus. They're enjoying
college life, and they look at my schedule and they can't
believe it. Sometimes I can't believe it either."
Olympic swimmers like to portray themselves as normal,
well-adjusted athletes, but they are, in fact, a very different
breed. Their workouts are monuments to monotony, and their meets
look remarkably similar to their practices. They do for fun what
most people would do only if their boat capsized and a fin
appeared in the distance, and they do it every day of their
lives. "The only thing I can compare them to are marathon
runners," says Bill, "but at least runners get to look around at
For Tom, life is a balancing act. He wants to enjoy a
well-rounded college experience, but he doesn't want to lose the
edge that is required if he intends to be the best. He must
train relentlessly, but he doesn't want to forget that there are
people outside the pool who count, too. Dolan receives hundreds
of letters from youngsters, many of them asthma sufferers who
consider him an inspiration, and he says he tries to respond to
every letter. Last summer, after getting two golds and two
silvers at the Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta, Dolan
agreed to shoot a public service announcement for the American
Lung Association. He was asked to read an uplifting message
concerning asthma, which, technically, is all he did. But the
filming took six hours, and he was underwater the whole time.
For his efforts, he received the going rate for a college
athlete: a handshake and a pat on the back.
So Dolan makes no apologies for leaving the amateur ranks or for
his immediate career goal: He wants to be a professional
swimmer. "If I could never make any money, I still would swim, I
still would love the sport," he says. "But it's every athlete's
dream: to compete in the sport they love and earn money for it
Dolan brings personality to a sport filled with hairless
amphibians. He records rap tapes and gave himself a rap nickname
for when he's spinning records for his friends: MC Mass
Confusion. He's also a big sports fan whose family owns
Baltimore Orioles season tickets, and when he wears his cap
backward and grows his goatee, Dolan bears a resemblance to
Cleveland Indians pitcher Jack McDowell.
Is it a face that soon will be smiling from magazine covers?
Dolan knows the answer to that: Only if he can breathe deep and
bring home a gold medal or two or three. "No matter how much I
accomplished, I've always felt there was something more to shoot
for," he says. "Even when I broke a world record, I came home
and I knew there was something beyond that--the Olympics, the
gold medal. Since I was a kid, that's the thing that's been
It has driven him over the edge at times, but he has survived.
And he has made it to Atlanta. He's pretty sure that no one
worked any harder to get there.