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Dolan's Race Of a Lifetime Ends in 1st U.S. Gold

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 22, 1996; Page A01

ATLANTA, July 21—Tom Dolan was 11 years old when he broke his arm and his mother told him he had to avoid swimming. He swam with a protective foam casing over his cast. He was a teenager when doctors diagnosed him first with asthma, then a narrow windpipe, and explained that these things gave him a poor capacity for oxygen intake, and an even poorer chance at swimming success. Dolan only swam harder, vanquishing the exhaustion, and the dizziness, and the occasional blackouts.

Tonight, Dolan conquered his fiercest rival, and the world. The man who long has refused to accept limitations became America's first 1996 Olympic gold medalist, when he edged training partner and fellow American Eric Namesnik to win the 400-meter individual medley in a time of 4 minutes 14.90 seconds. Dolan, a 20-year-old from Arlington, trailed Namesnik by three-hundredths of a second heading into the final 50 meters, and just out-touched him at the wall.

Namesnik—who has had an openly rancorous relationship with Dolan since Dolan arrived at the University of Michigan in 1993, where the two since have trained together—took home the silver medal with a time of 4:15.25.

"It's great for the team to get one and two," Dolan said in a television interview, in which he and Namesnik stood side-by-side, but refused, as usual, to look at each other.

Another American almost beat Dolan to the honor of winning the first gold medal for the United States in these Summer Games. Greco-Roman wrestler Dennis Hall met Kazakhstan's Yuri Melnichenko in the finals of the 125.5-pound competition. Hall had beaten Melnichenko in the world championships last year, but couldn't do the same today and settled for the silver. Two Americans—Josh Lakatos and Lance Bade—literally had a shootout in the trap shooting competition, with Lakatos taking the silver and Bade the bronze after they finished tied for second when competition ended.

And three U.S. women's teams debuted today, with the soccer, softball and basketball squads all winning their opening games.

Dolan's race, though, constituted the American's biggest moment of the Olympics thus far. There were U.S. flags waving wildly at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, where approximately 30 of Dolan's family members and friends were scattered through the crowd, each of them wearing a white baseball cap with the name "TOM" stitched on the front. Among them were his mother, Jef Dolan, who loves to tell the childhood story of Tom dragging his heavy cast through the water, and his father, Bill Dolan, who long has marveled at his son's drive and determination.

"He's had that attitude and iron will for a very long period of time," Bill Dolan said in a phone conversation this afternoon, as he nervously awaited his son's race at the home the family has rented in nearby Buckhead. "When he sets his mind to something, he always accomplishes it."

The 400 IM (in which competitors swim 100 meters each of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle) is considered Dolan's strongest event here—he owns the world record in the event at 4:12.30—but he also is a medal contender in the 400 freestyle and the 200 IM. Those races will be held this week on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

The man expected to provide Dolan with his stiffest competition in both this race and the 200 IM, Finland's Jani Sievinen, did not even qualify for the final this evening. Sievinen, apparently drained by his efforts to qualify for the 200 freestyle on Saturday, finished ninth in the morning's preliminary heats.

Namesnik was the top finisher in those heats, but his performance this evening was stunning, given that he had finished more than 4.5 seconds behind Dolan in March at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis. But ever since Dolan went to Michigan and usurped Namesnik's status as star of the pool (Namesnik, 25, already had graduated but continued to train there), the two have been venomous competitors.

Tonight, Namesnik and Dolan hit the wall at precisely the same time after 200 meters (2:02.87) and Namesnik took the lead during the breaststroke.

"I gave it all I had in me," Namesnik said. "It's hard to feel the emotions right now."

Dolan may consider Namesnik his biggest rival, but his chief obstacle always has been his own ability to breathe. He has to be careful about the medications he takes to control the asthma, which is exercise-induced, because most contain substances banned by the International Olympic Committee. His coach, Rick Curl, keeps an inhaler by the pool for those moments when Dolan starts to feel dizzy and see black spots and winds up clinging to the lane ropes, gasping for air. Dolan never has had an attack in a race, but twice in the past year he has blacked out in the pool during practice.

Not that Dolan lets his lungs slow him anymore than that cast did when he swam all those laps with a broken arm at the Washington Golf and Country Club when he was 11. He was only 18 when he set the world record in the 400 IM in Rome, and twice has been named National Collegiate Athletic Association swimmer of the year since enrolling at the University of Michigan, where he was a junior this past year. Even when his breathing problems were combined with fatigue and exhaustion (caused by his own overtraining) at the U.S. Olympic trials, Dolan won the 200 IM, the 400 freestyle and 400 IM, the last in the third-fastest time in history (4:12.72).

If Dolan's fierce will is his most legendary characteristic, his ferocious competitive nature runs a close second. When Bill Dolan wanted his son to drink a second glass of milk as a child, he would simply fill two tumblers at the kitchen table, hand one to Tom, and say, "Okay, let's race!"

The father-son competition has gotten only more intense with age. Two weeks ago, Bill Dolan flew to Ann Arbor, Mich., to spend a day and a half with his son before they all got caught up in the whirlwind of the Olympics. They went to dinner, then to a local miniature golf course. An argument over who is the better player broke out by the second hole, when Bill took an early lead and started teasing his son.

As Bill tells it, Tom's response was to shoot four holes-in-one in a row, then force his father to eat crow for the rest of the night. It was an experience that Namesnik well knows.

"Generally, what I've always tried to emphasize is that you have to try to be a gamer," Bill Dolan said. "Try to be someone who, when the chips are down, when you're under the biggest pressure, when you're in the finals, you're at your best. Do that, and you're a gamer. And Tom's a gamer. . . . He always has been."

Bill Dolan first recognized that quality in his son during a swim meet at Bowie State University when Tom was barely 11. Swimming against bigger kids in the 12-and-under age group, Tom struggled in the morning heats, then came back in the evening and beat whom Bill called "all the big kids."

It was at that moment the father looked at the son and realized that he had something that set him apart from the others. And it was at that moment, Bill admitted today, that he first started to dream of days like this one: when he would stand, his face awash with pride, and watch someone place an Olympic gold medal around his little boy's neck.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company

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