At first glance he seems to be the work of some mad marine biologist bent on creating the ideal swimmer. Tom Dolan is as long and lean as an eel, with a wingspan that stretches halfway across the pool and a body-fat count that measures all of 3%. He stands 6'6", weighs 180 pounds in a wet Speedo, and trains as if the second-place finisher gets fed to the sharks.
Swimming, quite literally, comes more naturally to Dolan than breathing, which makes his accomplishments even more astonishing. At the NCAA championships last week in Indianapolis, Dolan set three American records and led Michigan to its first national title in 34 years. As always, he did it while struggling just to catch his breath.
Dolan, a sophomore from Arlington, Va., has exercise-induced asthma and an unusually narrow esophagus that allows him only 20% of the oxygen intake of the average person. These conditions make it hard for Dolan to breathe, which might not present a problem if he were on the chess team. However, he is arguably the best male swimmer in the U.S. His remarkable success has led his rivals to one conclusion: He must be growing gills.
"It can really get bad in our workouts," says Dolan. "There will be a real tightness in my chest, and I won't be able to get a lot of air. But my coach says it actually helps me in meets because it increases my ability to withstand stress."
"He has an incredible tolerance for pain," says Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek, who swam for the Wolverines the last time they won the NCAAs. "So he docs sillier, but there is a good side."
The results seem to support Urbanchek's theory. Last September, only days after the esophagus defect had been diagnosed, Dolan broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley at the world championships in Rome. He was 18 years old, the youngest male member of the U.S. team, and competing in his first major international meet. He said he thought he would have a good time, see the world, meet some terrific swimmers and maybe bring home a medal. Instead, he broke Tamas Darnyi of Hungary's mark and introduced himself as a bright new star. "I came out with so much confidence," says Dolan. "I thought, Well, maybe I can compete with these guys."
Back in campus pools this winter Dolan made his competitors look like manatees. In his specialty events, he lost only once. He was named Big Ten swimmer of the year for the second time.
Last week in Indianapolis, Dolan set the three U.S. records in three days, and he did it with flair, destroying the old marks in the 500 freestyle (by 2.84 seconds), the 400 individual medley (by 2.46 seconds) and the 1,650 freestyle (by 5.7 seconds). He also joined three Michigan teammates in winning the 800 freestyle relay. If the races didn't wear him out, lugging home all the trophies surely did. His performance has swimming fans buzzing across the country.
"Usually you sec records broken by 10ths of a second," says Urbanchek. "He broke them by two or three seconds."
"I was in a zone," Dolan says. "It might not be like basketball, where you go on a hot shooting streak, but you definitely get your confidence up, and you feel like no one can stop you."