Olympic champion swimmer Tom Dolan spent his Arlington youth so “ultra-competitive,” he would challenge you to a milk-drinking contest.
His “complete disdain for losing was greater than the joy of winning,” he recalled.
The two-time gold medalist who set a world record at age 18 spoke to fans and boyhood influencers Feb. 8 at the Better Sports Club, beside a display of 1990s clippings and his Sports Illustrated cover.
But the 41-year-old Dolan now shares hard-earned wisdom on competition’s limits.
As a boy doing his first strokes at Washington Golf and Country Club, Dolan “hated to lose, but I didn’t know how to handle it when I did,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t lose again, but I won’t make the same mistakes.”
The Dolan family had a rule: you could do anything you wanted, but you did it for at least a year. “I stunk at the clarinet when I was 10,” Tom said, but he stuck it out.
A turning point came at a swim meet when his father watched from the bleachers alongside famed Washington Redskin lineman Russ Grimm. Frustrated at his performance, Dolan threw his goggles and swim cap. His father was chafing to dash down to reprimand him, but Grimm said, “No, let him figure it out.”
(Last week’s audience included that father, attorney Bill Dolan, also a storyteller. He regaled me about his encounter with the late pro-baseball player George McQuinn. The older Dolan played on McQuinn’s Sporting Goods team in the 1950s and was once surprised to get tips on playing first base from the man himself.)
At Yorktown High School, Tom Dolan made many lifelong friends, he said, but he often had to make the “tough choice” to skip a party and get up at 4 a.m. on a freezing morning to swim laps. “It was a fair trade-off,” he said. “The key is loving what you do.”
At the University of Michigan, where he set his first world record at 18, Dolan “learned competing for someone other than myself, for the team,” he said. “Swimming is a selfish sport, egomaniacal,” he said. “When the team wins but I played bad, I’m supposed to be happy?”
At college he also first appreciated the support he’d received from home folks now in “this room.” He teased the Better Sports Club by noting that the trophy it awarded him as 1994’s Arlington athlete of the year is his tallest.
Dolan never lacked for confidence when sizing up opposing swimmers—despite a recurring challenge from asthma. But in winning in the NCAA, he saw that “when I swim well, others do well too.”
At the Olympics (Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000), where Dolan owned the men’s 400-meter individual medley, he truly grasped “the power of a team,” he said. He learned to “lead by example and take responsibility to train as a professional” seven hours a day for what boils down to four-plus minutes every four years. “There’s no greater honor than being in the Olympics where you’re representing, family, friends, community and country.”
But now that he’s married and the father of three, ultra-competitive Dolan runs his Swim School in Dulles, Va., to stress water safety and educating parents. “Whether you’re good or bad at it, you have to love what you do every day.”
Found, tucked inside a wall during an Arlington home remodeling: yellowed newspapers detailing the stock market crash of October 1929.
Dave and Mona Rook of North Quantico St. at 22nd Road, after tearing into a plumbing chase, pulled out copies of the Sunday Star and the Washington Herald Finance, “put there either to wrap pipes or for posterity,” Dave told me.
Sample headlines: “Market crash compared to drop of 1907. Senate to sift crash. Reserve takes actions. Bankers save market when panic stops. Security ‘indigestions’ blamed for collapse. U.S. Treasury calm in spite of day’s crash.”