UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN SWIMMER Tom Dolan has always been a sucker for a challenge. When he was little, says his father, Bill, the only way to get him to drink milk was to pour another glass and offer to race him. When he was 13, says his mother, Jef, he broke his foot while completing a backstroke turn. Forget about taking time off to heal. "I went to a medical supply store," Jef recalls, "and got this yellow foam sleeve people put on their casts to shower. But Tom couldn't kick with it on and looked like he was dragging a huge banana around the pool."
In fact, Dolan is first to admit that competition, not water, is his real element. He proved it handily last month at the Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis. On March 7, the 6'6", 180-lb. Ail-American won the 400-meter individual medley in the third-fastest time ever. Two days later, he took the 400-meter freestyle and, two days after that, posted the trials' only trifecta with a win in the 200 medley.
What made the triple all the more extraordinary is that Dolan, 20, suffers from allergies and exercise-induced asthma. In addition, he has an unusually narrow windpipe that allows him to take in just 20 percent as much oxygen with each breath as the average person. In January, after a practice session during which Dolan began hyperventilating and then passed out, he was sent to the emergency room—for the second time in six months. "Obviously it's scary," says Dolan, whose health was weakened by chronic overtraining. "But I am not going to let this hold me back in my racing."
He began swimming at age 5 in Arlington, Va., where his parents, Bill, now 52, a civil trial attorney, and Jef, 51, a communications professor at Marymount University, still live. "At first it was just for fun," says Dolan. But at 7, he followed his sister Kathleen, now 23 and a Catholic University law student, into club-team swimming.
Dolan, whose allergies caused him to wheeze and gasp for breath, was about 13 when diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. As a child, he had such bad symptoms, says Jef, "we had to strip his room and get rid of his trophies. He couldn't have drapes or bookshelves—anything that would gather dust. We used to tease him about it. We said he lived like a monk because he was literally in this cell."
Since most of the drugs that might make it easier for him to breathe are banned under NCAA rules because they contain stimulants, Dolan has been forced to rely on an inhaler that opens air passages in the lungs by relaxing the muscles around the bronchial tubes. Dolan refuses, though, to let his health problems keep him from swimming. "It's something I can't control," he says. "So there's no sense in my stressing out."
His cavalier attitude about pushing himself worries his parents, "Tom does not have a well-developed sense of self-preservation" is the way his father puts it. His mother—recalling stories of him as a child "going down a hill at 90 miles an hour on his Hot Wheels"—is even blunter. "It's amazing to me," she says, "that he even lived to be an Olympian."
Dolan's determination to excel made him an honors student at Arlington's Yorktown High School and an area swimming sensation. Then, as a freshman at the University of Michigan, he won four gold medals at the 1994 U.S. Spring Nationals. In September '94, at the World Championships in Rome, Dolan stunned the swimming world by breaking the record for the 400-meter individual medley.
In preparation for this year's Olympic Trials, he and his Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek designed an ambitious—too ambitious, it turned out—program that called for Dolan to swim 12 miles a day. "In a nutshell," he says, "I was overtraining." And his body knew it. Exhausted, he cut back to four miles. By mid-February, Dolan still wasn't in top form and came in 10th at the Big Ten championships in a preliminary heat of the 500-yard freestyle. That made his heroics three weeks later in Indianapolis even more remarkable. "In some cases, pressure hinders an athlete," says Urbanchek. "But Tom thrives on it. The bigger the meet, the bigger the swim."
When Dolan isn't swimming, he's listening to rap music in his apartment with roommate and fellow Olympian John Piersma. Nicknamed MC Mass Confusion, Dolan is a devoted rap fan with a special fondness for Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre. As for his relationship with Claudia Franco, 20, a Spanish Olympian who swims for Stanford (the pair met in December while training in Colorado), he says, "It's at the point where we talk on the phone every night. Some conversations are four hours long."
Mostly, though, Dolan is all business, either preparing for the Atlanta Games or thinking about them. "Winning an Olympic medal is every kid's dream," he says. But medaling is not really what moves him. "My dad says I'm a throwback," Dolan has said. "I just want to race. Me against you."
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Ann Arbor
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