Dara Torres is 41, a mother, and is off to an unprecedented fifth Olympics as a swimmer. It is a feat that impresses everybody — fans, the media and her fellow competitors. But it doesn’t impress the swimming pool.
“The water doesn’t know what age you are when you jump in,” the oldest woman ever to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday. “So why not?”
In her mind, Torres is no different than countless other American women who juggle motherhood with a job.
“You really just have to find a good balance. I consider myself almost like a working mom, even though this is really a lot of fun, what I’m doing,” she told Lauer. “There’s so many moms out there who work 9 to 5 and then have to take care of their children. I feel like I’m one of them. I always put my daughter first, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Over the previous three days, Torres had set American records in both the 100-meter and 50-meter freestyle races, winning both and qualifying for four events in the upcoming Beijing Games. In the 100 on Friday, she beat Natalie Coughlin, who had been the American record-holder. Coughlin is 16 years younger than Torres.
At the end of the race, Torres had to ask other swimmers what the scoreboard said — at her age, it’s hard to read the numbers without her glasses. “I think I’m still in a little bit of a shock,” she told Lauer of her surprising wins. “Once I get back to training camp, I think it will all sink in.”
Defying the yearsWith her short, blond hair and a 1,000-watt smile that she flashes easily and often, Torres looks like a woman in her 20s. She first represented the United States in the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles. She was 17 then, and the wunderkinderof American swimming today, Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, hadn’t even been born yet.
Torres returned for Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992, then retired for seven years before coming back for the 2000 Games in Sydney. Then she retired again and had a baby, Tessa, two years ago before discovering that her competitive fires were still burning brightly. So she came back at the age of 41 to a sport in which 30 is positively ancient.
She has accumulated nine medals in her four trips to the Olympics, three shy of Jenny Thompson’s record of 12 for an American female swimmer. By winning the two sprint races, Torres also qualifies to become a member of two sprint relay teams. If she were to win medals in all four races, she could break Thompson’s record.
But, Torres told Lauer, she may not swim in all four events. Her best shot at a medal is in the shortest race, the 50-meter freestyle, an all-out dash from one end of the Olympic pool to the other. The 50 comes at the end of the weeklong swimming meet, with the preliminary races starting the day after the 100-meter freestyle finals.
The morning afterAt the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Torres said that after she won the 100, her body felt as if it had been run over by a freight train.
“It was probably the hardest 100 I ever swam,” she said. “The next morning when I woke up and had to get ready for the 50 free, I felt like I could barely get my arms out of the water.”
Lauer asked her if she will try to win four more medals. “Not necessarily,” she replied, saying she would have to talk to her coach, Mark Schubert, and the rest of her training staff before deciding. If she drops the 100, the third-place finisher at the trials, 22-year-old Lacey Nymeyer, would take her place.
It is inevitable that anyone who does what Torres has done at an age when most swimmers have been retired for a decade or more will face questions about how she does it. Knowing that people will ask whether she’s taking performance-enhancing drugs, she has gone to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which drug-tests Olympic athletes, and asked to be singled out for special testing.
Since March, she’s said, she’s undergone random tests — both blood and urine — at least a dozen times.
“I’ve taken a proactive approach,” she said. “I went to USADA and talked to the CEO there and said, ‘Hey, people are talking about me. They can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m an open book. DNA test me, blood test me, urine test me, do whatever you want. I want to show people I’m clean.’ ”
Knowing how often she’s tested and how clean she’s been, she smiles when people suggest she must be taking something. “I just take it as a compliment,” Torres said.
Lauer observed that when he hit 40, he found he couldn’t do things he used to do and got winded more easily. So how does she do it?
Torres laughed. “Maybe I’m a little more athletically gifted than you are.”