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DOLAN DOES IT

Try as he might, he could not breathe. Tom Dolan attempted to pull the air into his lungs, and it would not fit. It was thin air, heavy. Swamp air. Dolan tried harder, and it was like sucking the air out of bicycle tire. He felt claustrophobia, and then frustration because there was no relief.

This was Dolan's asthma, picking the absolutely worst time to act up again. Or was it?

Maybe, it was simply that the air gets thin atop Mount Olympus.

The United States finally struck gold Sunday night. As expected, it was Dolan, a swimmer with the cockiness of a champion but the lung capacity of a middle-schooler, who brought home the medal by capturing the men's 400-meter individual medley.

As events go, it wasn't the best swim Dolan has had. It was 2{ seconds slower than his own world record. But it was good enough to rule the world.

More important, it was good enough to rule Dolan's own neighborhood.

Aside from the uncooperative air, the world really didn't stand in Dolan's way Sunday night. Eric Namesnik, Dolan's old rival, did. Namesnik, Dolan's teammate at the University of Michigan, pushed Dolan until the final surge. It was not until Namesnik looked at the scoreboard that he realized he had lost by .35 of a second, leaving him with a twisting, familiar feeling of losing once again to Dolan. When Namesnik saw, his face contorted in agony as he turned away.

According to the watch, they are close. They swim for the same college, and the same country, in the same race. They train in the same lane. When swim officials talk of this race, they are mentioned in the same breath.

And you know what?

They don't like each other.

This is not the cuddly portrait of teammates embracing on the platform. This is swimming's version of The Defiant Ones, rivals chained together for the duration despite their differences. Even in victory, side by side, they do not look at each other. They say the right things about how each has needed the other to push them to these heights, but neither voice contains warmth.

"They have a great deal of respect for each other," explains Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek. "I didn't say love. I said respect."

There are times they yell at each other during practice. They do not socialize. It was Namesnik's record that Dolan broke, it is Dolan who pushed Namesnik into the shadows, and it is Namesnik's place as the world's top medley swimmer that Dolan has taken. If not for Dolan, perhaps Namesnik would be better-known. Perhaps he would have signed the $200,000 deal with Nike. Perhaps he would have been the first American in two decades to win the gold in this event. Perhaps.

No, they are not friends. They are sharks in the same water.

And yet, it is because of the other they are here. A thousand times, they have raced this race in the Michigan pool. After practice, with only the other swimmers watching. There, Namesnik sometimes wins. But there is something about a big match that seems to lift Dolan above the pack, that pushes his performance to the level of his confidence.

It happened Sunday. In the morning prelims, Dolan was only the third-fastest qualifier, a full 5 seconds off his record. The asthma was acting up. He was in his first Olympics. If ever Dolan seemed vulnerable, this was it.

But he has beaten back the asthma before. Twice in a six-month period before the trials in March, Dolan had to be rushed to the hospital after blacking out in the pool. His windpipe is constricted, and he gets 20 percent less air than his competitors. Still, he came back. He did it again Sunday.

"It was a tough race for me," he said. "I was hurting. My lungs were burning pretty bad. I wasn't getting any oxygen at all."

One last time, Dolan and Namesnik went at it. They were dead even at the halfway point. Dolan led after 250 meters, Namesnik after 300. Namesnik after 350. Finally, Dolan after 400. Their heads rose from the water as one, their hands made them look like synchronized swimmers. Dolan was in lane three, Namesnik in lane four. Side by side, like always. Blocking out the rest of the world, like always. Judging their own success by the other's.

One scene. After the race, Dolan stood on the deck of the practice pool and practiced grinning. He shot his fists into the air. He hugged everyone who would hug him back. He had faced up to the pressure, to the asthma. And he had won. "I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I can't describe my feelings. This is a little too much."

Another scene. In the corner, his back to a chain-link fence, Namesnik sat on wet concrete, his head in his hands, and wept openly. This was his last race, his last chance. He wound up with his second silver medal. And the view of his rival winning the gold. "Man, I thought I had the damn thing," he said to no one in particular. And he lowered his head again.

The thing is, there has been a symbiosis going on that neither fully understood. Without Dolan eating at him, perhaps Namesnik would have retired after Barcelona as he planned. Without Namesnik beside him, perhaps Dolan would not have risen so high.

They have pushed each other so much. And prodded. And pestered. Funny they would end up on the medal stand, side by side. Funny they would not look at each other to acknowledge it.

Funny. You spend time thinking you have no use for someone, and it turns out you have every use in the world.

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