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What was it, the length of a hand? After nearly a quarter of a mile of slicing through the water, the two of them in adjacent lanes, terribly twinned throughout the race, it comes down to what, .35 of a second? What does it mean, after all that distance, to be better or worse by the length of a hand?
Watching Eric Namesnik, second in the 400-meter individual medley in Barcelona and second again in Atlanta, drift back down the pool after the race, alone in his defeat, you knew it meant everything. Length of a hand. All the difference in the world. Tom Dolan, his training partner at Michigan, his fierce rival, the celebrated world-record holder-asthma sufferer, had beaten him again. "People are always telling me I'm second fiddle," Namesnik said afterward. And so he was, by just the length of a hand.
It was tough. Ever since Dolan arrived at Michigan in 1993, supplanting Namesnik as America's best hope in the 400 IM, there had been as much tension in the pool as there was chlorine. Dolan, 20, cocky, oddly shaved at times, became an insufferable nemesis of 25-year-old Namesnik, the man you would vote least likely to wear an earring in Olympic waters.
And every day they had to train side by side. They had set-tos. Dolan, as Olympian in understatement as in swimming, said after the race that their relationship "had some rough edges." Seated beside him, facing the press, Namesnik could only look away at the comment.
It probably didn't help that Dolan, who has exercise-induced asthma and has blacked out during hard workouts, was celebrated for his handicap. It is a terrific story, how Dolan surmounted his problem, but it had to be a little galling to the guy who breathes normally and still couldn't win.
So it was little wonder the two lived in friction. But as much as they hated it, both knew they needed the heat it provided. Namesnik drove Dolan to his world record; Dolan kept Namesnik swimming. Without each other, "I don't think either of us would be in the place we are now," Dolan said afterward. That was as warm and fuzzy as it got.
For Dolan it was the honor of winning the first U.S. gold in Atlanta. But for Namesnik it was his last race, the end of a career. Ended by the length of a hand.