Tom Dolan is an inspiring guy. If you talk to him about swimming, you can tell it’s what he’s passionate about. He has tales about growing up in the swimming leagues in Arlington, and anecdotes about what it takes to become an Olympian. But most importantly, Dolan has the skills to keep your children safe in the water.
Dolan is the creator and owner of Tom Dolan Swim School, which has a flagship location in Dulles, and is expanding the brand with a second swim school opening in Falls Church in February.
Rather than training competitive swimmers and teams, the school focuses on water safety and teaching students of all ages, from 3 months to adults, the proper techniques and solid fundamentals of swimming.
We spoke with Dolan about his swim school brand, why he’s passionate about water safety and what it’s like being a parent to four kids under the age of 5. We also spoke with the architect for the Falls Church location, Rick Conrath, about the school’s family-friendly design. Highlights below:
Tell us how you first became involved in swimming.
I was born in and grew up in Arlington, and started swimming like how a lot of kids in this region start—in my neighborhood pool. I was a little swimmer at Washington Golf & Country Club in Arlington. My sister, who is three years older than me, really was the driver of how I got involved in swimming. I was the bratty little brother who wanted to beat my sister. I was fortunate enough to grow from my neighborhood, summer swimming league up through the ranks, and fortunate to get a scholarship at the University of Michigan and then on to the world stage and the Olympics.
Why did you create the Tom Dolan Swim School?
I really noticed as I went through the ranks of competitive swimming that there was this incredible gap, from a grassroots standpoint, of aquatic education, respect and awareness of water safety and parent and overall family education as to what are the steps and the outlets in which you can start your children to learn to swim. Like many parents from my generation, we had the old classic where at 5 or 6 years old, if you could make it to the other side of your summer pool, you could be on the swim team. There was never a platform that provided incremental, systematized curriculum-driven steps that focused on water comfort, water acclimation and trusting the substance that, unfortunately, you can die in. The school focuses on learning how to swim to save your own life and learning how to swim as a water safety life skill.
Why was Falls Church chosen for your second location?
I think the fun thing for me is bringing it closer into Falls Church, to an area where I live with my wife and four kids now, and where I grew up. We’re not competing with an organization out here that is providing an outlet for kids like this. We help the summer league teams because we have those kids that can get some one-on-one time and get some small class sizes. By the time they get to be able to swim on a summer league team as a 7- or 8-year-old, they already have that technique down so that summer team starts to receive swimmers that are much more advanced in their understanding and comfort in the water. Just as much for the summer leagues, for the competitive year-round teams, the same idea applies. It’s a year-round supplement for everyone.
What is a typical swim class like at the school?
We have free classes for families that have babies that are 3, 4, 5 months old to give them a free introduction into the warm water, the shallow water and that great experience. Then we run classes all the way up through adults.
For the babies, the lessons are half an hour, and they consist of some steady progressions of skills for the baby that they can pick up even as young as six months to a year old. As that class progress up to 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds, I wrote the curriculum so you learn your baseline, foundational elements first: proper front float, proper back float, then you start to learn your freestyle, then you start to learn your backstroke.
What’s your advice to parents teaching their kids how to swim in their neighborhood pools this summer?
Parents need to understand the repetition and comfort level requirement of kids being acclimated to the water. They have to put their perspective on, “What is the best defense I can provide my child?” in terms of this skill of learning how to swim. If you only have access to pools during certain times of the year, you need to start from scratch with your kid every year to ensure that there’s no assumptions like, “By the end of last summer, they were just cruising across the pool.” Well, that’s great, but in fairness to the child, that was eight months ago. The other thing I would say is even if it’s just little 10-minute spurts, 15-minute spurts here and there, to have them stay in touch with the water. If you’re going to your neighborhood pool, you don’t have to have this huge practice with your kid, just keep them in touch with the water and keep them feeling their buoyancy and bounce in the water to get them to start to trust the water will hold them up. You can’t tell them that, they have to feel it.
Rick Conrath, GTM Architects
What were specific requests Tom had for the design of the Falls Church location?
Tom requested that we control the sequence of how customers and families flowed through the facility; balance the safety and security of the swimmers with visibility for the parents; use the facility’s design and layout to support his branding and messaging of “Swim Thru Life”; utilize materials that are compatible with a variety of age groups in a high-traffic, wet environment; and maximize the design and implementation of the HVAC and lighting systems. Our team worked with Tom on a variety of interior layouts to arrive at a final solution that balanced the design and technical aspects of the project with his program.
How did you factor in children and families into the design?
Factoring children and families into the design was perhaps the primary design goal. Many families arrive with siblings of different ages, so the facility has to provide the parents with options that allow a parent to simultaneously watch their child in the pool while keeping the other siblings happy, safe and entertained for the duration of the class. This involved creating activity zones for siblings, as well as a secured parent viewing area that was close to the pool, but separated environmentally from the heated and chlorinated pool.
The changing areas were designed as family style changing areas, with individual cubicles that allow for security, privacy and cleanliness. Baby changing areas, dressing rooms with hair dryers, areas for stroller parking, as well as additional bag storage have been accommodated in the layout. All of the materials and millwork in the facility were chosen to be durable, washable and safe for young children to play and climb. The slip resistance of the pool deck, water temperature and the chlorine management of pool water were key factors of the design.
The sequence of arrival and movement through the facility was an extremely important program element. Careful study was given to parent check-in, movement through the changing areas to the showers, pool deck and back to the changing areas before checking out. Since group swim classes are held consecutively at multiple times throughout the day, the layout and design had to provide the capacity for those times when all of the swimmers arrived for their designated lesson at the same time. With the reality of traffic in this area, parents are often challenged to arrive on time and get their swimmers in the water within the time frame of the scheduled lesson. The central philosophy and design of the swim school strives to make this a pleasurable and repeatable experience.
For more information on Tom Dolan Swim School and its new Falls Church location, visit tomdolanswimschool.com.
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