Dolan's talent is exceeded only by his determination. At Michigan an average practice day for the team included four hours in the pool, and Dolan swam every lap as if he were in the Olympics. "Tom just doesn't know how to slow down," says Wolverine coach Jon Urbanchek, who is also an Olympic assistant coach. "This is what makes him great, and also what gets him in trouble. He can push his psychological limits almost as far as his physiological limits."
When Dolan took last fall off from school to focus on his training for the U.S. trials, his routine became even more grueling, and he passed out in the Michigan pool twice. Then, after three weeks in Colorado Springs for altitude training, he returned to classes and to the Big Ten schedule, but something wasn't right. He looked worn out, and his resting heart rate soared from about 50 beats per minute to 100. He spent a day in a hospital undergoing tests that determined that he was suffering from chronic fatigue. He only competed in two relays in the Big Ten championships, which were won by Minnesota, breaking a string of 10 straight titles for Michigan.
To give his body a chance to recover, Dolan stayed out of the pool for a full 72 hours, an eternity by his standards. "I thought we'd make it to the trials without a breakdown," says Urbanchek, "but he just extended his body beyond what it could take."
Dolan put all worries to rest in his first event of the trials by swimming the 400 IM in 4:12.72, the fastest time ever in the U.S. and the third-fastest in history. He was nearly two seconds ahead of world-record pace after 300 meters, but he eased up and saved his strength for his later events. He repeated the strategy in winning the 400 free, slowing in the final 50 meters and settling for a 3:48.99, the second-fastest clocking ever by an American. In the 200 IM, he won in 2:00.20, only .09 off the U.S. record. Dolan finally ran out of steam in the 200 backstroke, his last event, in which he finished seventh.
Five weeks after the trials Dolan signed a two-year contract with Nike and forfeited his remaining college eligibility. The decision was not difficult. In the U.S., a world-class swimmer has a small window of opportunity to cash in his winning ticket, and Dolan didn't hesitate to step up with his. One of the first perks of the deal was a trip to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and a shopping spree at the company store. Tom and Bill filled two shopping carts with swoosh-covered apparel. Forget the paycheck. Dolan now has a closet full of black hightops and a different cap to wear backward for each day of the month.
Although Dolan played golf and basketball as a kid, by his sophomore year in high school the pool commanded his full attention. He says "90 percent" of the boys he competed against in high school have long since given up the punishing life of competitive swimming. Only the strong or the obsessed survive, and Dolan qualifies on both counts. "I often wonder what I'm doing busting my ass in the water 10 times a week," says Dolan. "I've got a couple of friends on the [ Michigan] hockey team. They're the biggest chick magnets on campus. They're enjoying college life, and they look at my schedule and they can't believe it. Sometimes I can't believe it either."
Olympic swimmers like to portray themselves as normal, well-adjusted athletes, but they are, in fact, a very different breed. Their workouts are monuments to monotony, and their meets look remarkably similar to their practices. They do for fun what most people would do only if their boat capsized and a fin appeared in the distance, and they do it every day of their lives. "The only thing I can compare them to are marathon runners," says Bill, "but at least runners get to look around at the scenery."
For Tom, life is a balancing act. He wants to enjoy a well-rounded college experience, but he doesn't want to lose the edge that is required if he intends to be the best. He must train relentlessly, but he doesn't want to forget that there are people outside the pool who count, too. Dolan receives hundreds of letters from youngsters, many of them asthma sufferers who consider him an inspiration, and he says he tries to respond to every letter. Last summer, after getting two golds and two silvers at the Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta, Dolan agreed to shoot a public service announcement for the American Lung Association. He was asked to read an uplifting message concerning asthma, which, technically, is all he did. But the filming took six hours, and he was underwater the whole time. For his efforts, he received the going rate for a college athlete: a handshake and a pat on the back.
So Dolan makes no apologies for leaving the amateur ranks or for his immediate career goal: He wants to be a professional swimmer. "If I could never make any money, I still would swim, I still would love the sport," he says. "But it's every athlete's dream: to compete in the sport they love and earn money for it too."
Dolan brings personality to a sport filled with hairless amphibians. He records rap tapes and gave himself a rap nickname for when he's spinning records for his friends: MC Mass Confusion. He's also a big sports fan whose family owns Baltimore Orioles season tickets, and when he wears his cap backward and grows his goatee, Dolan bears a resemblance to Cleveland Indians pitcher Jack McDowell.