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Suddenly, in the Distance, It's Dolan

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 7, 1994

Tom Dolan, a 6-foot-6, 180-pound string bean from Arlington, entered last week's U.S. Swimming Championships hoping to do for distance swimming what Mark Spitz once did for the mustache: make it cool, fashionable, the hot new trend.

For more than a decade, American men's distance swimming has lagged behind that of other countries, a fact that has caused great consternation among many in the U.S. swimming community. And it was against this backdrop that Dolan plunged.

"Tom's got a hydrodynamic advantage for distance swimming," said Jon Urbanchek, Dolan's coach at the University of Michigan. "He has very low percentage body fat, probably 3 to 4 percent, and he's got a tremendously long reach. In swimming, just like in boat building, the length of the hull is very important. He's rather skinny, but that's an advantage because swimming is about overcoming drag."

Urbanchek means that swimming is about overcoming the resistance of the water. But his words run deeper. Swimming, perhaps more than any other sport, is also about overcoming the drag of daily training: the monotonous repetition, the isolation in the water, the loneliness of competing primarily against a clock. Overcoming drag is where Dolan has most excelled. You want laps? He'll give you laps until your arms fall off.

So it's no coincidence that after being named Big Ten swimmer of the year as a freshman last fall, Dolan, 18, topped himself at last week's U.S. championships in Federal Way, Wash., where he became the sixth swimmer in history to earn four individual titles.

In winning the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles and the 400 individual medley (in an American-record time of 4 minutes 13.52 seconds), Dolan singlehandedly pumped new life into the U.S. distance scene, which has been moribund since 1984, when George DiCarlo set an American record in the 400 free -- a mark that still stands.

"Since I first started swimming, I've always known the U.S. has really weak distance swimmers," Dolan said. "I would say that growing up, I didn't have one swimmer who I wanted to be like. There weren't many distance role models to look at, but there were enough great U.S. swimmers that you could take certain qualities from each one -- like Mike Barrowman's work ethic and Mark Spitz's toughness."

Dolan -- who graduated from Yorktown High School in 1993 and still swims in some meets for the local Curl-Burke Swim Club -- isn't the only American male to burst onto the international distance scene recently. Arizona sophomore Chad Carvin and Texas sophomore Matt Hooper also have posted eye-opening numbers.

Their rise comes during a transition period for American swimming. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, a number of U.S. men made their last stands: Matt Biondi, Pablo Morales, Nelson Diebel and Barrowman. Their retirements left voids into which a new generation aspires to step.

Whether Dolan and the other distance swimmers can fill them depends in part on whether they have enough charisma and star power to command the national attention of a Biondi or Morales. Traditionally, in swimming, as in running, sprinters get the most attention (although Janet Evans was able to garner attention on the women's distance side).

It hasn't helped the distance cause that the United States hasn't had internationally competitive distance swimmers in 10 years. One reason is that colleges began introducing shorter races and more sprint relays into the NCAA championships, meaning that teams could score huge numbers of points in the sprints.

"Basically," Urbanchek said, "college coaches recruit predominantly sprint-oriented athletes on scholarships. Michigan is probably the last major university that still caters to the distance freestyle and the individual medley swimmers."

The other reason that distance swimming has declined is because of a seismic shift in the philosophy of training. Dolan explains: "It used to be that the whole idea around distance swimming was the more you trained, the more yards you did in practice, the better you were going to be as a distance swimmer. That also meant more time in the pool and much harder workouts.

"But then," Dolan continues, "out of the blue a coach came up with the idea that it wasn't how much you train or how long you train but how much stroke work you did and how much technique you used. So, of course, everybody jumped on that bandwagon of not having to work as hard to do as well.

"That totally blew the distance scene for U.S. swimming. Everybody stopped training. I think people are now finally realizing that {philosophy} is not true and people are starting to go back to the old, 'Let's see how much yardage we can do.' "

Dolan never took out membership in the less-is-more club. Schooled by Curl-Burke founder Rick Curl, Dolan cut his teeth on the same demanding training regimen that built Barrowman (a former member of both the Curl-Burke and Michigan teams) into a world-record holder and Olympic medal-winner in the 200 breaststroke.

"In general, in a lot of sports, people are trying to take shortcuts and not commit as much," Rick Curl said. "The bottom line, as I've seen it in my career, is that the ones who work the hardest and most consistently, day-in and day-out, are the ones who are going to the top. Mike Barrowman was the last example of that. His career was day-in and day-out intense work, and Tom is coming up in the same mold."

Barrowman was important in helping Dolan, who was recruited by nearly all the swimming powerhouses before choosing Michigan. But more important was the relationship between Curl and Urbanchek.

Like many club coaches, Curl is protective of his star pupils and he believes that while college competition is good for most swimmers, it is a distraction for the top 5 percent who should be concentrating, he believes, on international meets, world records, Olympic medals -- and the money that can come with such achievements.

"I respect Jon as a coach," Curl said of Urbanchek, "because his focus is not entirely on the NCAAs like most college coaches."

At Michigan, Dolan immediately was thrust into a practice atmosphere that included daily reminders of the level at which he was competing: 1992 Olympian Eric Namesnik pushed him on one side, while Marcel Wouda, the 1993 NCAA champion in the 1,650 free, hounded him on the other.

It has paid off in a big way. Dolan and Namesnik appear to be the favorites to represent the country in the 400 IM at the world championships in Rome in September.

Then it will be full steam ahead to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

"My aim with Tom was to get him ready for 1996," Urbanchek said. "The Atlanta Olympics were my goal, and I thought he could be the number one IMer by then. He beat me by almost two years. I thought the road would be longer, but it took a lot less time."

Note: Dolan was a Washington Post All-Met swimmer in 1992.

© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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