- 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.

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.

“My mentality when I retired was I wanted to not because I felt like I had no other option, but I wanted to actually make a decision on my own,” he said. “I think any athlete is always going to have that feeling that they could have done more than they did. It’s a natural human feeling, but you’re never going to fully reach everything you want, and I think that’s the way life is.”

Education and inspiration

If Mr. Dolan’s Olympic experience involved a tidy resolution, Northern Virginia resident Cara Heads‘ Olympics was one of inspiring action.

A standout weight lifter from Southern California, Ms. Heads walked away from the 2000 games in Sydney without a medal but with renewed motivation.

“I just feel like I could have done things differently in terms of preparation,” Ms. Heads said. “It was the Olympics, but I was still learning. It was relatively early in my career. Going forward in my weight-lifting career, I took things from that experience to become a better weight lifter.”

In a sport that can call to mind images of bulging muscles, grimacing faces and grunting giants, the 34-year-old Ms. Heads is a breath of fresh air in a stuffy weight room.

Her shoulders are broad, her arms and legs well-toned, but her easy laugh and smile are what stand out.

About two years ago, Ms. Heads turned her passion for the sport into a job. She opened CH Fitness and Performance and moved to Crystal City to be with her then-fiance, who is now her husband and a power lifter himself.

The venture has two sides: One focuses on helping people to lose weight, while the other side hones an athlete’s skills and strengths.

“You can never stop learning, never think you know it all,” she said “That’s not a good place to be.”

Ms. Heads started weight lifting in high school with her older sister after the shot and discus coach suggested it for strength training. She and her sister entered a local lifting competition to see where they placed. They nabbed the top two spots.

“I was hooked,” Ms. Heads said, smiling. Not even old enough to vote, Ms. Heads traveled to Savannah, Ga., to prepare for the Junior World Weight Lifting Championships. She won a bronze medal as a junior competitor and took fourth place in the senior championship.

Until 2000, female weight lifting was not an Olympic sport. When it was announced the Sydney games would host, Ms. Heads turned her sights Down Under.

“It’s a really unique opportunity to be with fellow Olympians, to share in that experience,” Ms. Heads said. “It motivates you, too, because you’re thinking, ‘I’m here with the best in the world. That’s just such a great honor.’”

Though she tied her personal best in a lift called the snatch, she missed her personal best for another lift, called the clean and jerk.

She doesn’t look back at her performance with regret. In fact, she continued to excel at her sport, earning a spot as an alternate during the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, where she lifted her personal best.

“It’s actually a pretty tough position,” she said of the role of the alternate, who usually is called upon when a competitor is injured. “You’re forced to train for something that’s not guaranteed. Fortunately, I love what I do.”

Anticipation and awe

He didn’t know where, he didn’t know how, he didn’t know when. But D.C. native Derek Brown knew it would happen.

“One of my dreams was always to go to the Olympics,” said Mr. Brown, a member of the 1996 U.S. men’s handball team. “I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I knew I was going to be there.”

Until June, the 42-year-old worked as a central office administrator in the D.C. Public Schools system. He lives in Fort Washington with his wife and their three young children.

In 1993, Mr. Brown was headed to La Salle University in Philadelphia after graduating from Gonzaga College High School. Around the same time, the U.S. national handball team moved its training camp to his university while it prepared for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

He saw the team wandering the campus and stopped by one of the practices. One of the players invited him to join a practice. He declined but went on to make friends with some of the players.

“I’d never even heard of it,” he said, describing the sport as “soccer with your hands, water polo on a court.”

A natural athlete, Mr. Brown quickly picked up the new sport. He was invited to train with the team but chose to defer the opportunity to return home to the District and take a job with an insurance company.

Back home, Mr. Brown maintained regular communication with a sports doctor who had introduced him to the handball team.

“He’d tell me how everything was going; he’d say, ‘Derek you really need to come back up here, really give this a shot,’” Mr. Brown said.

Eventually he gave in to his curiosity and moved back to Philadelphia in the fall of 1993.

“I was still learning the game, but it wasn’t until early 1995 that I had a good feeling that I was at a point where I knew enough that I would be on the team. Then, of course, with more games, more success, I knew I’d be a star.”

Three years after picking up the sport, he got the opportunity he always had wanted.

“The Olympics would be my stage. I was ready to show what I could do,” he said. “My goal was to be the best handballer I could be.”

He spent time with fellow athletes during the opening ceremonies and in the cafeteria, but Mr. Brown said he didn’t have much time to make friends because the handball medal tournament ran the entire two weeks of the games.

“I do regret that,” Mr. Brown said. “It was either training or playing. My focus was so much on the sport. You don’t know if this is your only shot.”

The 1996 games were the only Olympics for Mr. Brown. Though he can’t be there on the court, he said he enjoys watching the games on television — but he can do without the glitz.

“I love all the coverage, but I don’t need all that extra stuff to draw me in,” he said. “I don’t need to know the back story, I’m an Olympic athlete. Show me the competition.”