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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Rivalry Produces Gold for Dolan

July 22, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Sport teaches conflicting lessons. Defeat your opponent at any cost, but when the competitor becomes, say, your Olympic teammate, you must embrace him, cheer for him and help him.

Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik, teammates in college and again on the U.S. Olympic swimming team, have assisted each other by fiercely competing in practice while swimming in the same lane, glaring at each other.

Years of mutual testing primed them for Sunday's 400-meter individual medley final at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. They matched each other stroke for stroke until Dolan's impossibly long arms reached the wall first and he became the first American to win a gold medal at these Olympic Games.

Namesnik, as usual, was second. Dolan's time of 4 minutes 14.90 seconds barely beat his teammate, who won the silver medal in 4:15.25. Curtis Myden of Canada won the bronze in 4:16.28.

Dolan and Namesnik have turned aside genteel sportsmanship and patriotic obligations to pursue medals, which, in their case, means pursuit of each other. Namesnik, 25, won the silver medal in the 400 IM at the 1992 Olympic Games and returned to Ann Arbor, Mich., toattend graduate school and train with his college coach, Jon Urbanchek.

Joining him that year at the school was Dolan, the next brash thing in swimming. All Dolan did was surpass Namesnik's American record in the 400 IM, supplant him as the top American in the event and beat him daily in his own pool.

The two have been constant rivals and wary teammates since, even as their coach conspired to race them against each other only at major meets.

While the endorsement bandwagon blew by the reserved Namesnik, the goateed, earringed, rap-singing Dolan has cashed in big time. The 20-year-old gave up his collegiate eligibility to sign contracts and has emerged as the most visible swimmer on the men's team.

Dolan's image as a junk-food devotee hardly seems at odds with his managing an exercise-induced asthma condition that allows him only 20% of normal oxygen intake. He's a perfect fit in sports' new world of red-lining athletes.

Namesnik, who will now retire, tried mightily Sunday to beat Dolan, whom he has never defeated. Dolan's winning margin was the closest ever between the two. Only Dolan's powerful final turn and the advantage of his 6-foot-6 frame carried him to the gold medal.

The two pointedly ignored each other after the race, even as they lingered in the pool. Namesnik stayed in his lane and stared into the middle distance, despondent and disbelieving that a career of international note could end three-tenths of a second short.

Although he waved vaguely to acknowledge the crowd's cheers, Dolan seemed more stunned than elated, although it later emerged that the chief emotion washing over him was relief.

"It was definitely a huge weight lifted off my back," Dolan said. "I can relax now and do my own thing and swim my own races. I was the one the U.S. was leaning on to win a gold medal. I feel like I am free now."

After each had warmed down, and after Namesnik had sat on the deck of the practice pool and sobbed into Urbanchek's arms, the two swimmers spoke about how it is possible for a competitive environment to breed enmity, but also bring out excellence.

"I don't think either of us would be in the place we are right now without the other," Dolan said. "It's been a great help for me to train with him and push me in the water. I think anytime you have a relationship like that, you are going to have rough edges. The bottom line is when we are in the water, we push each other and help each other at the same time."

Namesnik acknowledged the tension between the two, even as they sat at the same dais and failed to make eye contact.

"Tom's been pushing me the last couple of years, getting me back on top of my game and back on the awards stand," Namesnik said. "Supposedly we have this big rivalry, but when you have the top two guys in the same event, it's difficult and there's a lot of stress."

Do they rub each other the wrong way?

"Superficially," said Urbanchek, who is an assistant Olympic coach. "But underneath, they have a great respect for each other. That's what happens when you put two highly competitive guys in a cage."

Urbanchek shook his head when asked about oft-told stories that the pair's relationship actually deteriorated to the point where they fought on the pool deck. According to the coach, they don't get close enough to throw blows.

"They don't talk," he said. "They give dirty looks to each other. If looks could kill. . . . I kind of love it. It makes my job easier. I don't have to motivate them. They have each other."

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