Catching up with Tom Dolan


By Mike Watkins//Correspondent

To the majority of his 1,400-plus students, who range in age from a few months to adults, Tom Dolan is simply Mr. Dolan, the man who owns and runs their swim school.


To the students’ parents, many who grew up in the Washington D.C. area and followed his stellar collegiate and Olympic career, he is Tom Dolan, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, former world record holder and local hero.


To himself, Tom Dolan is simply Tom Dolan, someone who always gave his all in the pool and overcame his severe exercise-induced asthma to become a world and Olympic champion, as well as a husband and soon-to-be father (baby girl due in July).


He is also someone who, through his Tom Dolan Swim School, is creating a new generation of swimmers, starting them at a young age, giving them the tools needed for a strong foundation and guiding them through the competitive ranks.


“It’s great to be back in Virginia, and I’m really loving running this school,” said Dolan, a 10-time NCAA champion at the University of Michigan and two-time Olympian. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial nature about me. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to have my own business.


“With the swim school, I am able to combine that desire with my natural, ongoing passion for swimming,” Dolan added. “It’s a win-win.”


Dolan’s journey didn’t begin with plans to run his own swim school. In fact, after working for a couple of years during his immediate post-competitive swim career with the United States Olympic Committee – helping other competitive athletes transition from sports to a career outside of their sport – he worked for more than five years with an investment banker.


The final four years, he was on the trading floor but always felt something was missing.


“I was making great money, but I kept coming back to the same question: What am I ultimately doing to help other people?” said Dolan, who won the 1996 and 2000 Olympics gold medals in the 400 individual medley and held the world mark in the event from 1994 to 2002.


“I always knew there was more to life, and the idea for the swim school definitely gave me something more meaningful to focus on,” Dolan said. “I was reluctant at first to have the school named for me, but being well-known in the region definitely gave our new school credibility and grew interest.”


Dolan left his investment banking position in late 2007 and spent the following two years traveling throughout the country and even to Australia, observing other swim schools and learning what works and doesn’t work.


All the while, he was building a model for his own swim school, weaving in pieces of the good examples he witnessed, along with what he wanted to create for young swimmers of varying levels of experience and knowledge.


“Even when I started swimming, it was apparent there was a gap in the way kids are often taught to swim, so I made that the focus of my school model,” Dolan said. “Swim programs tend to work backwards, putting kids in the water and see how fast they can swim from one end of the pool to the other before focusing on technique.


“I am reversing that at my school, giving them the basic life-saving swim skills to learn to swim properly. What they decide to do beyond that is up to them, but I want them to learn to swim, first and foremost.”


Now that the school is a couple years old and well-established, Dolan has been able to cut back on his deck time – although he never taught swim classes – and focus on running and growing the business.


Among his top responsibilities are quality control and connecting with parents. But he especially makes a priority to get to know his students and check on their progress.


“I was working seven days a week, often 12-hour days in the beginning; however, at the one-year mark, I was able to pull back and take care of everything else,” Dolan said. “Being able to focus on the over-arching aspects of the business has allowed me to grow the business, but I still love interacting with the kids. They are, after all, what we’re all here for in the first place.”

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