It would be easy for Tom Dolan to create and coach a high-level, competitive swim team, winning medals and rising in the ranks of the local leagues. He’s a gold medalist, after all. But that’s not Dolan’s focus.
“I really noticed as I went through the ranks and progressed through those different rungs of the ladder in the world of competitive swimming that there was this incredible gap, from a grassroots standpoint, of aquatic education and respect and awareness of water safety,” says Dolan, Arlington local, former world record holder, father of four kids (all under the age of 5, by the way) and two-time Olympic champion, competing in the 1996 Atlanta games, and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
That epiphany led to Dolan creating the Tom Dolan Swim School, which opened its second location in Falls Church (the flagship is in Dulles) in March. The school provides swim lessons for all ages (3 months and up) with an emphasis on water safety education and correct stroke form.
Dolan compares his philosophy to how many other youth sports leagues are set up. “My generation had the old classic: 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. No other youth sport starts that way. It’s not like you start to play youth basketball and they go, ‘OK, let’s shoot the ball from half court.’”
Starting from the basics and learning them step by step are fundamental keys to Dolan’s curriculum. He believes repetition and muscle memory work best—but only when the movements are done properly. That’s why younger students start in a smaller swimming pool, to allow for mastery before adding distance.
“The only way it works properly is to repeat the correct technique,” says Dolan. “And the only way to do that is to shorten the length of the water they’re swimming. If you had your son swim five strokes—five correct strokes—and stop him before that technique starts to fall apart, it’s easier [for him] to repeat proper form.”
The classes are broken down by age and capabilities. Older children learn stroke development and then, once they nail down the proper forms, advance to classes with longer pool lanes to accentuate stroke enhancement. Babies and toddlers, on the other hand, focus on water comfort.
“Babies are the best swimmers in the water; the most comfortable,” says Dolan. “They’re like little buoys in there.” Classes for babies and parents are made to be as comfortable as possible. Think concise, 30-minute classes in 90-degree, shallow water parents can stand in (no need to tread!) that teach youngsters back floating and turn-around swims.
“They can learn to pick up those skills, so if they plop into the water on the side of a pool, they can go right back around to where they came from,” says Dolan. “We have stories of families where that has happened to them. Whether it be at a neighborhood pool or a backyard pool, where they took their eyes of off the pool for a second and all of a sudden their little one plopped in, and they look down and there they are! They had done their little turn-up swim and they’re holding onto the wall smiling, looking up at the parents.”
It can be a frightening anecdote for parents, but stories like that are what motivates Dolan to continue to reduce the risk of drowning by promoting water safety.
“This is not about finding the next Olympian,” he says. “This is about wanting families to bring kids up to have this life skill of knowing how to swim.” // 22000 Dulles Retail Plaza, Suite 104, Dulles and 6112 Arlington Blvd., Seven Corners; Free introductory lessons for 3-5 month olds, $102 monthly
3 tips for summer swimming
Teaching your child how to swim? Here’s Dolan’s essential advice.
Dolan stresses not comparing your kid to others’ progresses. “Set a tone of this should be a fun process. This should not be a, ‘Timmy down the street just got a best time in 8-and-under freestyle.’ The idea of water acclimation, respecting it, learning proper curriculum and to have fun with it is a healthier pathway to be put on.”
“If you’re going to the neighborhood pool, you don’t have to have this huge practice with your kid. It’s just about keeping them in touch with the water for them to feel their buoyancy and trust the water; even if it’s just little 15-minute spurts here and there.”
Start from scratch
If your child hasn’t swum since last summer, reteach them the basics. “Ensure there’s no assumption like, ‘By last summer they were cruising across the pool.’ That’s great, but in fairness to the child, that was eight months ago.”