At 40, Torres wins another national title
Vail, CO Colorado
INDIANAPOLIS ” For Dara Torres, it was always the same. No matter how many Olympic medals she won or how many times she touched the wall first, her stomach would rumble and churn before every race.
Torres figured she had left that all behind when she climbed onto the podium in Sydney to receive one more gold medal ” the perfect capper to one of the most enduring careers in U.S. swimming history.
“Ahhh, it’s so nice that I don’t have to feel this nervous again in my life,” she thought to herself that day, almost seven years ago.
Well, think again.
At age 40, and just 15 months after having a child, Torres is back in the water hoping to earn her fifth trip to the Olympics. She’s competing this week at the U.S. National Championships, with every intention of reclaiming a spot on the American team next summer.
Torres already looks like a serious contender, winning the 100-meter freestyle Wednesday night against a field that included two other former Olympians.
“Don’t put an age on your dreams,” said Torres, whose 14th national title came a quarter-century after her first, back in 1982 as a 14-year-old swimmer.
Torres woke up Wednesday at 6:15 a.m., feeling those same ol’ pangs in the pit of her stomach even though she was still nearly five hours away from her preliminary heat.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I wake up this morning going, ‘Well, here I am again. I feel like I’m going to throw up.’ People are like, ‘You’ve done this so many times, how can you get nervous?’ But I think I’m more nervous now than I was during my last Olympics.”
Maybe that’s only natural when she looks at those swimming around her, many of them not even half her age, plenty of them young enough to be her daughter.
“She’s absolutely amazing,” said 16-year-old Caitlin Leverenz, who was honored just to warm up in the same lane as Torres. “I watched her push off from the wall and her streamline is one of the fastest in the world ” and she’s like 40 years old. I’m thinking, ‘Wait, this is an old lady.’ I’m just kidding. This is a swimming legend.”
No argument there.
Torres was the first American to swim in four Olympics and her trophy case is packed with nine medals: four gold, one silver and four bronze. She’s already pulled off one improbable comeback, stepping out of retirement to claim five medals in Sydney. At 33, she became the oldest U.S. swimmer ever to win Olympic gold.
After her amazing performance Down Under, Torres retired again. But she never lost her love of the water or got away from the training that made her a world-class athlete. In fact, on the day she delivered daughter Tessa, she had been to the pool and lifted weights.
“I was feeling miserable that day,” Torres recalled. “So I went in for a swim and felt so much better.”
That night, she was a mother.
“Four pushes and she was out,” Torres said. “I guess it was all those ab exercises.”
A year ago, just a few months after giving birth, she joined swimming’s version of the senior circuit, looking for a way to get reconnected to the sport after being away for seven years. Even though she was still breast-feeding between races, Torres put up some surprisingly fast times at the masters world championships. Amazingly, her body felt looser and more flexible than it did before she had a child.
“I had so many older swimmers come up to me and say, ‘Wow, it would really great to see a swimmer in her 40s swimming at the Olympic Games,”‘ she said. “Now mind you, there were about 5,000 swimmers there, and everyone is telling me this. It kind of gets you motivated.”
Before long, Torres was putting up times that were just fractions of a second off those at the peak of her career. She decided to quit swimming with the old-timers and dive in with those grew up idolizing her.
“I was one of those little girls in 2000 going, ‘Oh wow, there’s Dara Torres and Amanda Beard and all the others,”‘ Leverenz said with a giggle. “Now, I’m getting to swim with them.”
During Torres’ last comeback, she credited a carefully scripted training regimen for helping her get to Australia. She’s still taking nothing to chance, bringing along to Indy an entourage that includes two “stretchers” and a masseuse.
She also knows that plenty of people were suspicious of her performance in Sydney, figuring that it must have been aided by performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s too bad that people in the past used drugs,” Torres said, “so when someone does something that’s a little out of the ordinary, they get tainted too.”
If people were whispering behind Torres’ back when she was 33, imagine what they might say if he makes it to the Olympics in her 40s? Looking to cut off any rumors before they get started, she went to USA Swimming and asked to be subjected to extra testing, including blood work, in hopes of showing that she’s totally clean.
In the past six weeks, Torres has been tested three times.
“It’s a pain,” she said, “but it’s worth it for all the naysayers out there. Here are all my drug tests and they’re all negative. Those guys can say what they want, but here are the facts.”
Torres’ goal is to make the Olympic team in the 50 freestyle and swim well enough in the 100 to earn a spot on the 400 free relay team. With a year to go, she’s already a legitimate contender.
“She’s got as good a shot as anybody,” Leverenz said. “If anybody can do it, she can.”