Memory Games

While an Olympic competition sometimes takes just minutes, the afterglow can last a lifetime.
July 27, 2008
Interviews by Christina Breda Antoniades | 2008 Photos by Keith Barraclough | Audio by Whitney Shefte | Q&A, Monday

Tom Dolan, 32

Arlington
Gold medalist, 400-meter individual medley, 1996 (Atlanta) and 2000 (Sydney); silver medalist, 200-meter individual medley, 2000.


I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH ASTHMA WHEN I WAS 12. It kind of formed my personality. Wanting to overcome that made me more competitive. It was that belief that nothing is going to hold me back from what I want to do.

In 1996, I was fortunate to win the [gold]. To an outsider, it would seem that things went great. I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on the Wheaties box, on the "Late Show With David Letterman." It was an unbelievable experience. But it wasn't one-tenth of what I knew it should have been. Leading up to the Olympic trials, I'd had chronic fatigue from overtraining. For three months, I wasn't allowed to swim more than 2,000 meters a day -- normally I would train 18,000 to 20,000. Here I am, ranked in the top three in the world, and I had a handicapped parking pass so I wouldn't have to walk far to get to class. We kept it really quiet. Nobody knew how little I was able to swim.

I made the team, but I knew there was no way I'd be 100 percent by the time the Olympics rolled around. My outlook changed to, "Let's get through the meet." The first event was the 400 IM [individual medley]. It was an ugly swim--probably the most painful of my career from a physical standpoint. It was a great honor to win, but after that I had zero gas in the tank. I finished seventh in the 200 IM, and I didn't qualify for the 400 freestyle. Everyone has this feeling that time doesn't matter as long as you win. But I'd wanted to swim my best time and break a world record, too. [It] bothered me.

Leading up to Sydney, I was more focused and dedicated.

I wasn't sick, and there wasn't the same pressure. It wasn't about winning a medal; it was about doing my best. And there was so much more joy around it. I'd always felt that if I lifted my head up to smell the roses, I would lose focus. [But now,] I was able to step back and enjoy the people I trained with, my coaches, the whole process. In the 400 IM, I broke the world record and won the gold. In the 200 IM, I broke an American record and got second.

I don't know if I became a better person for going through the health problems I had, but I became a different person. I realized that the path you take is immensely more important than the final goal. It was an outlook I wish I'd had my whole career.

Fast Forward

After trying investment banking, Dolan is working with Carlile Swimming Club, an Australian swim lesson and coaching organization expanding into the United States.

Related

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Q&A, Monday
The author and the athletes take your questions and comments.
Countdown to Beijing
Read full coverage of the 2008 Olympics.

PHOTOS: Current Photography by Keith Barraclough, 2000 Photograph by Doug Pensigner/Allsport/Getty Images; AUDIO: Whitney Shefte WEB EDITOR: Amanda McGrath - washingtonpost.com

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