The reporter said it probably was. Probably was? Two teammates who didn't like each other, placed in adjoining lanes, swimming almost as two congruent figures, virtually synchronized, faster than everyone else in the world, swimming the same race they had swum almost every day for the past three years, .35 of a second difference at the end...yes, that was the story.
"I guess," Dolan said from the front seat in the traffic jam in the middle of the best night of his life. His rival still rode with him. One last time.
Eric and Tom. Tom and Eric. They had covered themselves in sandpaper in order to live so close for so long. The only way they could rub against each other was the wrong way. They had helped each other so much, yet shared so little. Eric and Tom. Different. Tom and Eric. Adversaries of proportions found only in some Elizabethan tragedy. Going for the same faraway but attainable prize. Swimming in the same water. Showering in the same showers. Every day.
"They would kill each other with their eyes every day, if you know what I mean," Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek says. "They would give each other dirty looks. They wouldn't talk at all, but they would race every day. Twice a day."
Eric was the resident prince, the logical successor to a couple of thrones. He was the hard worker, the churner from Butler, Pa., smallish for his event at 6'1", 170 pounds, but with "a great engine," according to his coach. He had spent his time in waiting at Michigan behind breaststroker Mike Barrowman, the star and 1992 Olympic gold medal winner in Barcelona. Eric had had also spent his time in waiting for his event, finishing second at the '92 Games to Tomas Darnyi of Hungary. Barrowman was retired. Darnyi was retired. Wasn't this now Eric's time?
Tom was the newcomer at the school, the hotshot recruit. Six-foot-six, 180 pounds, he was a torpedo. He had spoken with Urbanchek for the first time only two weeks after Barcelona, a high school star from Arlington, Va., choosing Michigan largely because, well, largely because Eric was already there. What better daily measuring rod could possibly be found for the 400 IM than the best 400 IM swimmer in the United States? This didn't mean the measuring would be a gentle process.
"Eric was older," Dolan said. "I was a freshman, but I didn't want to go through all that freshman stuff. I didn't do what those older guys wanted. I was my own person. I didn't think I deserved to go through that."
Eric was quiet, never smiled much, already graduated and his eligibility used up by the time Tom arrived, but still training with Club Wolverine to prepare for Atlanta, after which he planned to retire. Tom was noisy, confident, good. There was a five-year difference in ages. Eric was tuned to easy-listening music and wanted to be a coach in the future. Tom wanted to be...what? He liked rap music and called himself MC Mass Confusion when he played disc jockey for pals at school. He wore an earring. Grew a goatee.
There was a time, early, when Eric was in control. He had set the American record for the 400 IM four times, all before Tom arrived at Michigan. The last time came in a heat at the 1993 summer nationals; in the final, Eric beat Tom to win the national title. But Tom was improving. In the spring nationals of '94 he broke Eric's record, and in the world championships in Rome that summer he set a world record of 4:12.30. He became the star.
It all seemed so easy. He was glib and loose and successful. He had a tidy background story: a swimming star afflicted with asthma. He described at the press conferences after setting his records how it was so hard sometimes for him to breathe. A triumph over adversity. Eric sat next to him, breathing fine, silver or bronze, listening to the story again and again. Once in a while he was asked a question.