Kornacki: Atlanta Holds Olympic Memories for Wolverines

March 22, 2016

1996 USA Olympians
A 1996 photo shows coach Jon Urbanchek (seated) with USA Olympians (from left) Eric Wunderlich, Eric Namesnik, John Piersma, Tom Dolan and Tom Malchow.

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The gold, silver and bronze medals were hung around the necks of four Wolverines swimmers who were maize and blue, through and through.

And now 20 years have passed since the University of Michigan men's swimming and diving team sent an incredible 10 qualifiers to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and had Gustavo Borges, Tom Dolan, Tom Malchow and the late Eric Namesnik bring home five medals.

Jon Urbanchek, who coached the Wolverines to 10 consecutive Big Ten titles and the 1995 NCAA championship, was there as an assistant coach for the U.S.

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It was a glorious era for Michigan, which had its "Decade of Dominance" in the college ranks punctuated with the exclamation point of international success.

Borges, Dolan, Malchow and Urbanchek have been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and Mike Bottom has become the head coach of Michigan's swimming and diving teams for both men and women. He's continued the "leaders and best" theme, winning a sixth consecutive Big Ten championship with the men and his first with the women this season. Bottom led the men to the 2013 NCAA crown.

This week, the Wolverines will chase an NCAA championship in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, the same facility that was home to the Atlanta Olympics.

"It's nice that Michigan's going back to a pool that has a special place in my heart," said Malchow, who won silver in the 200-meter butterfly in 1996. "It will be exciting to see what Mike Bottom's going to do with the crew he has there.

"Bottom's done a great job of getting us back to that winning tradition, winning the NCAAs again in 2013, and restoring the program to what it was in the days of Urbanchek."

Dolan connected those past Michigan Olympic accomplishments to the current team's challenge in the same pool. He visited the Wolverines on March 9 and addressed them in a team meeting room connected to the Canham Natatorium as they prepared for the national meet. Their unique encounter will be shared Wednesday (March 23) in another story at MGoBlue.com.

"Time flies," said Urbanchek. "Oh, my gosh, 20 years ago. We had a load of people at that time who were just awesome. And after winning it all in 1995, all anybody was thinking about was Atlanta and going to the Olympics. Our team had an Olympic culture."

"At the (swimming venue), there were more Michigan flags flying and waving than any other country except the U.S."

Dolan, Malchow, Namesnik, John Piersma and Eric Wunderlich qualified for the U.S. team. Borges (Brazil), Derya Buyukuncu (Turkey's flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies), Ryan Papa (The Philippines), Francisco Suriano Siu (El Salvador) and Marcel Wouda (The Netherlands) represented their countries.

"Michigan had more athletes there than some countries," noted Malchow. "But no matter what we were wearing on our (swim) caps in the Olympics, we were wearing the Michigan 'M' close to our hearts, representing Michigan as well as our separate countries."

The featured race for the Wolverines in Atlanta was the 400-meter individual medley.

Urbanchek pointed out that Dolan "wiped out" Namesnik's American record in the 400 IM as a sophomore at Michigan and went on to set a world record in the event. Namesnik had won the silver medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and now his greatest challenge came from a young Wolverines teammate.

"The whole race in '96 was the climax of the whole thing," said Urbanchek. "It was very exciting, just unbelievable. It was neck and neck with them swimming side by side. I don't think they were ever separated by more than a half second."

Dolan won by 35-hundreths of one second in 4:14.90, and Namesnik was next in 4:15.25. Wouda finished fifth in 4:17.71.

Namesnik, who died after an auto accident in 2006, and Dolan walked along the pool deck to the medal ceremony, both waving American flags.

"It was pretty amazing," said Dolan, now owner of the Tom Dolan Swim School in Dulles, Virginia. "That was the exhale after a lot of years of going side by side and butting heads. To have that end, there was a sense of relief because there was a stress level there. I loved it and I know he loved it, too.

"To win a gold medal in front of your home country was a dream come true. My grandparents, who never really saw me swim, were there."

Dolan walked to the highest medal-awarding stand and raised both arms, flag in his right hand, while making a No. 1 gesture with the ring finger on his left hand.

"Dolan's greatest asset was that he was an unbelievable competitor," said Urbanchek. "Tom never talked about winning. He just hated to lose. He was a damn good racer. He loved to race, period."

Dolan said: "I had a real deep-rooted hatred of losing, and from a team perspective I could turn that into a passion that it's not acceptable to work below a certain level. It was unacceptable to accept results that were sub-par. Nobody was allowed to view it any other way. If I'm going to do it a certain way, it's magnetic."

Michigan won the NCAA championship during his sophomore year, and Dolan was the big dog who continued motivating the Wolverines in the Olympics.

Borges (200-meter freestyle) and Malchow (200-meter butterfly) matched Namesnik with silver medals in Atlanta, and Borges also took home a bronze in the 100-meter freestyle.

"The Atlanta Olympics were between my freshman and sophomore year," said Malchow. "I never trained more in my life and was surrounded by Dolan, Namesnik, Wunderlich, Borges, Piersma and Wouda -- all these top level athletes who trained hard.

"I was supposed to finish third or fourth in the Olympic Trials but came in first. I was a deer looking into the headlights going into the finals and just took in every moment of it and ended up swimming what was a perfect race for me at that time in my career. I wasn't expected to be on that team, let alone leave with a medal in '96."

His career had the ideal progression. Malchow won gold in 2000 in the 200 butterfly at Sydney and then served as the Olympic team captain four years later in Athens while injured.

"Jon gave me all the tools and training to break the world record in 2000 and win the gold nobody expected," said Malchow, now a medical device salesman for hip and knee replacements living in Seattle.

Urbanchek said performing in the biggest meet played into Malchow's driven personality.

"I liked Malchow because he was so aggressive in the race," said Urbanchek, who first noticed that quality in Malchow when he was a high school sophomore in a national meet in Mission Viejo, California. "He had the guts to go out fast."

"Urbanchek was a little bit of a father figure but also a friend," said Malchow. "He could be a swimming coach and your friend while busting on you at the same time. He knew swimmers well and it's why such people swam for him. I enjoyed every minute of it."

1996 Olympians, Malchow
Left: Wouda, Piersma, Namesnik, Borges, Wunderlich, Dolan and Malchow in Atlanta. Right: Malchow celebrates his victory in Sydney.

Urbanchek said Malchow and Dolan had long, thin body frames "and looked like snakes going through the water."

"They were like a barge going against a kayak," added Urbanchek."They were one with the water, actually going with the water."

Both Dolan and Malchow overcame asthma to perform at an elite level, and Urbanchek said both began swimming because doctors recommended it as a sport in which they would be the least affected while building lung capacity.

"We had as many inhalers on the deck as water bottles," said Malchow, noting that others on the team also had asthma.

Dolan also suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome during the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials, jeopardizing his chances of making the team.

Urbanchek took his team to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for altitude training during the time between Christmas and the beginning of the next semester, and he blamed himself for doing that because it increased the breathing problems Dolan and Malchow had.

"When we came home," said Urbanchek, "Dolan got really sick and lost all of his energy. We thought it was mono but it was that syndrome. He was barely able to swim, and we didn't think he was even going to make it to the Olympic Trials. But, thank God, he recovered."

Dolan said, "It was awful. As incredible as '96 was, it's tough for me to talk about it because it was, by a long shot, the worst I ever felt physically. For three months I wasn't allowed to swim faster than the slowest lap swimmer when the university professors are swimming at lunch time. They didn't want my heart rate to get too high. They were worried that I was going to have a heart attack."

He said one of the reasons he erupted into pool celebrations after winning races was because of the "guttural release" he felt after having to overcome so much in training through the challenge of asthma and then the exhaustion. Dolan said he was so fired up from winning the '95 NCAA title that he trained too hard and wore himself out.

"I didn't have a shut-off switch," said Dolan, "and then, boom, I came crashing down. But the doctors here were amazing in helping me."

Dolan said he had to believe that "the work I did in the years leading up to it" would get him through the Olympics despite inadequate training leading up to it. He added that dealing with asthma his whole life enabled him to compartmentalize the situation.

Story to be continued.

Read more about the Michigan swimming heroes of the 1996 Olympics at MGoBlue.com:

• Wednesday (March 23): Dolan Connects Current Team to Past Successes

• Thursday (March 24): Namesnik's Family Finds Life's Sunshine