Villanova men’s track and cross-country star Sean Dolan doesn’t like to lose.
He has this attitude whether he’s playing Xbox with friends or racing at a high level. It is a big reason Dolan, who was an All-American last year and won the Big East title in the 800 meters, has been so successful. He also made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic trials in the 800 meters, where, despite being just a redshirt freshman, he finished fifth in his heat and narrowly missed qualifying for the finals with a time of 1 minute, 47.16 seconds.
Dolan qualified for the Olympic trials on a Saturday, and the following Tuesday was in Eugene, Ore., to compete in them. The quick turnaround gave Dolan little time to process his accomplishment.
“A lot of stuff happened in the week but everything just went by so fast because there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think, which was probably a good thing,” Dolan said. “Like, I’m there, I have to race and then next thing you know I’m out and then I’m watching on the sidelines, but it was a crazy experience.”
Dolan got into running at an early age, but only got serious about it as a freshman in high school. His parents were actually worried about Dolan when he gave up his other sport, soccer, so quickly, but the reality was that Dolan saw how good of a runner he could be if he dedicated all of his time to it.
In fact, Dolan grew up in a running family that he now competes against. His father, Steve, is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s cross-country and track team. His brother, Tim, is a senior and runs for his father with the Quakers. Despite his family ties to Penn, Dolan decided to do his own thing.
“Obviously it was a little awkward in that recruiting phase where [my father] probably wanted me to go to Penn a little bit, and then I didn’t exactly want to go to Penn, but it was fine,” Dolan said. “It’s kind of funny, it’s good to see him at all those meets; it’s good to see him a lot.”
Dolan says his decision to attend Villanova was easy. Once he saw the campus, he knew that was where he wanted to run. Dolan returned home from his visit, had a quick chat with his parents, and five minutes after pulling back into the driveway he called head coach Marcus O’Sullivan and verbally committed. The turnaround time was so quick that O’Sullivan had to ask the highly touted recruit if he was sure about joining the program. Dolan was.
“Basically as soon as I got on campus I knew it was the place,” he said.
Even though Dolan competes against his father’s team, his dad still supports him. “He does this weird thing where if I’m running against some of his guys, he’ll say, ‘Oh, go Penn,’ and then he’ll squeak in something for me a little bit, just to recognize that I’m still there,” Dolan said. “He’s still being supportive of everything which is great.”
Dolan’s other familial rival, his brother Tim, also finds ways to support him. In fact, Dolan asked Tim if he could be a pacer for his last opportunity to qualify for the Olympic trials.
“That was one of the coolest races I’ve ever been a part of,” Tim said. “All I remember was with about 300 meters to go, I felt like it was going to be something special. Seeing the clock when Sean finished and knowing he’d taken full advantage of his last chance was unbelievable.”
Dolan appears relaxed and has a certain focus on the “vibes” of his team. He enjoys the good energy that Villanova’s squad emits, and he says that going to practice is his favorite part of the day. He is calm and collected, something that clearly serves him well in high-level races. However, he also has a serious competitive edge.
Part of Dolan’s work is running 55 miles a week and attending practice six days a week, where his teammates have witnessed firsthand his dedication to the sport.
“When he comes to practice he’s pretty lighthearted and cheery, but when it’s time to actually focus he goes into business mode and makes sure everyone is good while also focusing on his own development,” said senior Patrick Spychalski. “It’s like there are two Seans.”
Tim also sees these two sides in his brother. “Off the track, he’s very laid back and easy going, on the track he’s as relentless of a competitor as I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s almost like he flips a switch when it’s time to race.”
“I just can’t stand losing, so going into races I never think that I can’t win,” said Dolan. “That’s kind of one thing that sets me apart, I guess, from some people is I’m probably willing to work harder than most people.”
Dolan, who is a junior academically at Villanova, still holds freshman eligibility for cross-country and indoor track, and sophomore eligibility for outdoor track. This is because Dolan redshirted his freshman year because of a broken tibia, and the NCAA’s decision to not count last season against an athlete’s eligibility due to COVID-19.
As of right now, Dolan intends to utilize his remaining years of eligibility to continue running for Villanova. “The plan is to stay as long as Marcus will let me stay,” Dolan said.
Dolan’s goals are to be an Indoor All-American again, compete in the USA Championships this year and return to the Olympic Trials in three years. He hopes to qualify for the All-American Outdoor meet as well this year.
“There were a couple of things last year that left a bad taste in my mouth that I want to get done, and I have some time goals for the [800 meters and 1500 meters] but I don’t want to think about those too much because those will come from actually racing people in the races,” Dolan said.
Now having experience in high-level running, Dolan feels ready to take it all on.
“I no longer can say I’m intimidated by racing people that are better than me because I literally raced against the best guys in the world,” he said. “It doesn’t get much better than that, so I can’t really get too nervous about any races anymore.”