Tom Dolan recalls a conversation with a parent of one of his young students shortly after opening his first Tom Dolan Swim School in Northern Virginia. The 5-year-old had just gotten comfortable putting his face in the water, and his father wanted Dolan’s help mapping out strategies to ensure his son would get into college on a swimming scholarship.
“He probably didn’t want my answer,” says Dolan, who suggested that the dad give it some time. “I’m really big into having kids try a lot of different activities and seeing what strikes their little personalities and passions.”
Dolan, 45, isn’t in the business of creating the next Tom Dolan — a swimming superstar who set two world records and won two gold medals and one silver in the Olympics. Instead, his goal since 2012 has been to teach kids to be safer swimmers and to help them build important life skills along the way. He doesn’t even have aspirations for his own kids — Hannah, 7; Nora, 6; Fitz, 4; and Connor, 3 — to become competitive swimmers.
“What I hope is that they find something that they truly love, and that their passion for it runs as deep as my passion was, and will always be, for swimming,” Dolan says. “Whether that’s playing an instrument or playing chess or finding it in a sport — that comes without any judgment from me whatsoever.”
The father of four and his wife, Maryellen, live in Falls Church, about two miles from where he grew up in Arlington. He keeps his Olympic medals at home, much to the delight of his children, who will randomly ask to see them.
“I’ll always say to them, ‘Guys, you can always look at them. Because it’s not about the metals. It’s about the stories that Daddy shares with you about what I did to get to this point to be lucky enough to have these, and that’s what you need to learn,’” says Dolan.
In March, Dolan sold his eponymous swim school, with locations in Dulles and Falls Church, to Big Blue Swim School. He’ll stay on as president of mid-Atlantic operations, a transition that will allow him to continue sharing his passion for swimming with the community.
Washington FAMILY spoke to the busy dad and entrepreneur about the highs and lows of parenthood.
What is your favorite part of the day?
The morning — although I’m not a morning person, thanks to years of swimming way too early in the morning. I drive my kids to school each morning. It’s a special time and a great way to start the day. We have routines we follow, like calling out restaurants or places we pass on our drive. The kids also love to sing songs on our way. I love hearing their stories and sharing fun messages and thoughts to set up the day.
What’s the most challenging time of the day?
The transition at night from work to daddy time and bedtime. I think all parents can relate to this. It’s not easy to compartmentalize those tough workdays when I walk into the house, switch to playtime with daddy and help get four kids ready for bed. I want to be as present as possible for those bedtime conversations with my kids.
What do you love doing with your kids?
I love playing with them! We love soccer, baseball, tag and whatever game we can think of in our backyard. My kids share my wife’s and my competitive spirit, so they love any race or game against me.
What do you do that embarrasses your kids?
Since my kids are still young, I have not reached the point of embarrassing them. I know it’s coming soon, though! I’m sure I will be a significant source of embarrassment for them, just like all parents.
What are you looking forward to this summer?
Swimming! My kids love swimming in our summer pool, and we love going to Bethany Beach to swim in the ocean. This summer, in particular, we are looking forward to traveling for the first time in over a year.
What do you want for Father’s Day?
I coach my son’s t-ball team. What a Father’s Day gift it would be if my team of 4- to -6-year-olds actually listened to me! Even if just for one game or practice. Other than that dream, just some nice weather so I can go on a hike or play in the backyard with my kids.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Washington FAMILY.