SWIMNEWS ONLINE: January 1998 Magazine Articles

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American Profile: Tom Dolan

His Career Is Up In The Air


Russ Ewald

The toughest foe for Tom Dolan is not another swimmer. It's a condition called exercise-induced asthma that causes difficulty exhaling, dizziness, coughing spells, and occasional blackouts during his grueling workouts for the taxing 400 individual medley. He keeps an inhaler poolside for emergencies. But at a Christmas training session in Hawaii three years ago, Dolan passed out from hyperventilation and had to be taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

Nonetheless, the tall, lean American has overcome his opponent to set the world record in the 400 IM at the 1994 World Championships, win that event at the 1996 Olympics, and better three American records (500 and 1650 yard free, 400 IM) at a single NCAAs (the first since Matt Biondi to do so).

Dolan has been so successful in the pool in spite of his condition because of the combination of extraordinary natural talent and a tremendous competitive drive.

Dolan sliding through the water "almost like an eel"
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

"He has the lean body and is extremely flexible," describes Jon Urbanchek, his coach at Michigan for three years. "He is so flexible he should be in the circus. You should see the way he can bend over backwards. He can do things with the body that are unbelievable. He was made for swimming, almost like an eel sliding through the water."

Dolan's body-fat count has been measured at a miniscule four percent.

Rick Curl, who has seen Dolan struggle with asthma for eight years as his club coach, says, "To deal with the condition as long as he has is a credit to his competitiveness."

That competitive nature helped Dolan shoot up to the top in his first year at Michigan. Challenged in workouts by teammates Eric Namesnik, then the American record holder in the 400 IM, and Marcel Wouda, the European double IM champ for Holland this past season, Dolan dropped his 400 IM time more than eight seconds and set the world record.

"What made him explode the first year was his substantial background as a club swimmer," explains Urbanchek. "He did a lot of overdistance training. That and the daily dog-eat-dog competition in workouts from his teammates brought out the best in him."

For all the problems the asthma has caused Dolan, he sees some positives in struggling with the condition.

"It's made me so mentally tough when I step on the blocks," he says. "When I've gone to a meet, I've gone through so much more than anyone else to get there that it's a huge edge for me."

Since the Olympics, though, his opponent is gaining on Dolan. Whereas the asthma used to bother him only during workouts where he pushes himself to the brink or in-season meets when he's more broken down, it's now hampering his performances in the big meets.

"It's real frustrating for me," says Dolan. "I've been training real well. You work so hard and put everything into training to get to that meet and (it's frustrating) to not even be able to get the opportunity to show how hard you trained or have anything to show for it in terms of times or victories."

Dolan, who has been training at Curl-Burke and living in Arlington, Va., has seen several doctors at the Georgetown University hospital in Washington D.C. this fall. He still hasn't found an answer to his breathing problems that are exacerbated by a windpipe that is 20 percent narrower than the average person, a nasal allergy, and a deviated septum.

"There are probably six different problems that I have," he says. "We're trying to knock out one of the six at a time. It's hard because you can't take a single medication for everything that I have wrong."

Also, many drugs that could help him are banned by the International Olympic Committee because they contain performance-enhancing stimulants.

Some doctors have recommended surgery. But Dolan doesn't want to miss the training time that would entail. He doesn't foresee any problems at the World Championships in Perth because the pool is outdoors with an ocean breeze stirring the air. He trained there for two weeks a year ago at Christmas-time without incident. His recent asthma attacks have all come at meets held indoors where poor circulation and pool chemicals may be the culprits.

In Perth, he'll be able to focus on just the IMs for the first time in his career because he didn't make the team in the 400 free. He's been working hard in practice on the fly, his weakest stroke.

Swimming to meet his own personal goals
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

After the championships, Dolan will decide on his future in swimming.

"I will see what can be done then because I'm just not going to last much longer (in the sport) if I have to deal with all this," he says. "It takes away from my love of the sport and my love of training. It's almost not worth it, especially with everything I've accomplished. The only reason I'm swimming now are my personal goals."

His immediate goal is to improve his world record to a time "that's not going to be touched for a long time." If he can do that, he'd then like to focus on other events such as the distance frees, 200 back, and 200 IM.

"I think I can have some great times in those events," says Dolan.

He's shown his potential already with a 3:48.99 win in the 400 free at the 1996 Olympic trials, a 15:18.18 in the 1500 in 1994 and a 1:59.28 in the 200 back at the 1995 nationals.

"I feel he would have been our (the USA's) answer to (Kieren) Perkins in the distances if he had concentrated on them," says Urbanchek. "Then again, he could be one of the best breaststrokers in the world, or backstrokers."

Tom Dolan, USA
PLACE Arlington, VA
HEIGHT 6 ft. 7 in. / 197 cm
WEIGHT 190 lbs / 86 kg
OCCUPATION Student/Swimming
REPRESENTS Curl Burke Swim Team
COACH Rick Curl
Long Course Progression
Year 400 Fr 200 Bk 200 I.M. 400 I.M.
1992 4:02.72 2:07.11 4:25.45
1993 3:54.34 2:04.74 4:20.65
1994 3:52.47 2:05.87 2:08.00 4:12.30
1995 3:49.86 1:59.28 2:00.89 4:14.77
1996 3:48.99 2:00.87 2:00.20 4:12.72
1997 3:55.58 2:01.18 4:17.13

Following the World Championships, Dolan will return to Michigan to complete his studies. He plans to graduate in December. He is majoring in economics with minors in communications and psychology. He makes a good living through endorsement contracts with Nike, RPR Pharmaceuticals, Breathe-Rite nasal strips, the Clif Bar nutritional supplement, and public speaking appearances. His two-year Nike deal is reported to be worth $100,000. He also made the cover of the Wheaties cereal box.

Whether Dolan can last until the next Olympics is up in the air. As he says, "The bottom line is if I have good air, that's all I need."

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