- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2012

Tom Dolan inspired young athletes to dream in gold. Cara Heads pushed herself to look beyond a medal. Derek Brown wondered what was next.

They competed in different years, in different sports and with different results. But these former Olympians — all of whom have made homes and lives for themselves in the D.C. area — are watching as the London Games create a generation of new stars surmounting old records.

And as the games unfold, they consider their own stories and experiences, which demonstrate a drive to succeed that didn’t end when the torch was extinguished.

Conquest and closure

Before that boy from Baltimore, there was Tom Dolan. The Arlington native set a 400-meter individual medley world record in 1996, one that wasn’t broken until Michael Phelps dove into a pool in Florida nine years later.

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Nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Dolan was on the front of the orange Wheaties box, his gleaming head and torso emerging from the water to serve as an inspiration for Americans sitting down to their well-balanced breakfasts.

During the 1996 games in Atlanta and the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, Mr. Dolan won back-to-back gold medals for the 400 individual medley. He also won a silver medal for the 200 IM in Sydney. Mr. Dolan holds two world-championship gold medals and nine NCAA titles as a swimmer for the University of Michigan and was a 14-time U.S. national champion.

Admittedly, “a lot was a blur,” Mr. Dolan said, especially in the 1996 games, but the memories are much more vivid from four years later, when he turned 25 on the day of the opening ceremonies in Sydney.

“I certainly felt way more in control, not only my performance in the water, my actions, attitude, even my communication with the media and fans,” Mr. Dolan said. “I felt more comfortable with myself. As a result of that, I was able to enjoy it a lot more. When you’re younger, you almost have blinders on because of never having been there before.”

Today, he still works where the air is heavy with chlorine, but his lanky frame is behind a desk more often than resting along a length of pool deck.

The 36-year-old is the founder and CEO of the Tom Dolan Swim School, a school, he explained, that teaches life lessons along with the correct freestyle form.

Based just a few miles north of Washington Dulles International Airport, the swim school is noticeably absent of Olympic memorabilia and press photos of its famous owner. Despite his achievements, Mr. Dolan is not a showman, though he’s willing to share his medals with young students eager to make his story tangible.

“They understand that everyone starts out at the same spot,” said Mr. Dolan, who overcame asthma he developed at 12 to become a world-class athlete. “No one’s path is straight up. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s awesome for young kids to see that.”

These days, when he isn’t working long hours at the school, he and his fiancee are planning a September wedding.

A sucker for the video stories that tug on viewers’ heartstrings, Mr. Dolan said he’ll be following the Olympic coverage, but doing it with a peaceful mind.

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