2012 Olympics: Dara Torres pursues speed for the ages

May 17, 2012

Dara Torres methodically circled a weight room for more than two hours without a break on a recent morning, performing a host of weird, invented exercises. She churned out push-ups with her feet suspended in leather straps, occasionally hoisting her buttocks skyward. She plunged off a tilted wood block with a resistance cord attached to her waist, as if diving into an imaginary pool. 

Almost nothing she did using the equipment at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex fitness center matched the instructions for how to use the equipment. 

“I don’t think anyone else is doing this,” she said about one exercise. “That’s why I like it.” 

“She’s an animal,” said Joseph Andreoni, 19, as he watched from across the room. 

Actually, she’s a middle-aged woman who bought her first pair of reading glasses last year, dyes her hair blonde to cover the gray and can’t believe she was foolish enough to install a magnifying mirror in her bathroom, given the alarming amount of information it reveals. Torres, who turned 45 on April 15, is also a favorite to make her sixth Olympic team in the 50-meter freestyle at next month’s U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha.

A 12-time Olympic medalist who won three medals at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Torres has consistently gotten faster with age, relying on a team of medical and fitness experts to help her outwit Father Time. But this Olympic attempt, she said, has been the hardest by far. Doctors have confirmed what she instinctively knew: Production of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone that are critical to building muscle and recovering from workouts are continuing to decrease. She can no longer expect to maintain the strength of her youth, let alone improve on it.

“That’s probably the biggest thing I’m [in trouble] on,” Torres said. “They took my levels, and they’re just low. I’m a middle-aged woman: They’re low. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Actually, she found plenty she could do. If she couldn’t hope to build a stronger body for this Olympic journey, she could at least try to craft a better machine. So she has expanded her team of experts and urged them to shift their focus from strength enhancement to improving the function of her cells, brain activity and neurons. The result: Her unusual, eyebrow-raising regimen got stranger than ever.

“It’s all very, very science-oriented,” Torres said. “Before, in ’08, it was all about my body. Now it’s what’s going on inside my body.”

Even with the new approach, her body has complained and groaned every step of the way. She has had three knee surgeries as well as a pair of operations on an injured shoulder and hernia since the 2008 Summer Games.

“It seems like I’m sore every freaking day,” Torres said in between lifts. “You never get a day where you’re like, ‘My whole body just feels really good.’ ”

‘Most challenging’ Games

During a recent morning swim at Coral Springs Aquatic Complex, Torres’s coach Bruno Darzi poured water into 20-gallon buckets suspended at one end of the pool. He filled Torres’s bucket two-thirds of the way. He filled that of a male training partner only about halfway.

The two swimmers attached cords to their waists that forced them to lift the buckets as they tried to swim away from the wall.

It was a brutal exercise.

Torres, on some of the repeats, lifted her heavier bucket faster than the man moved his. He did not seem surprised nor discouraged. She did not seem satisfied.

“She’s very strong,” Darzi said. “But in 2008, we did the whole bucket. That’s the goal. But we’re not there yet.”

Major reconstructive knee surgery in October 2009, followed by two more minor procedures, proved an unexpectedly difficult challenge. Torres lost strength during the rehabilitation period, and her assumptions about the speed at which she could get it back turned out to be wildly optimistic.

Just more than 12 years ago, as she returned to competition for the 2000 Summer Games after having taken seven years off, it took her just three months to get back into shape. In just four months, she set a personal best in the 50 freestyle. It was so easy. Even in 2008, as national news outlets lined up for access to an aging physical wonder, getting faster did not seem so hard.

There are a number of other 40-something athletes in pro sports — Colorado Rockies pitcher Jamie Moyer, 49; Grant Hill of the Phoenix Suns and Kurt Thomas of the Portland Trail Blazers, both of whom turn 40 this year; goaltender Dwayne Roloson, 42, of the Tampa Bay Lightning — but none whose on-the-job success relies solely on pure explosive speed and power.

“This has definitely mentally and physically been the most challenging Olympics I’ve ever trained for by far,” Torres said. “It’s only been four years since the last one. I don’t know why I’m suddenly feeling the effects of age now, but I am.”

A 5-foot-11 science project

Torres readily admits she seeks every possible means of performance-enhancement within the rules. In her constant attempts to keep age at bay, Torres said, she often feels like a 5-foot-11 science project. In fact, she recently added a second trainer, scientist and neurologist to her team of consultants.

Her advisers say she warns them to be mindful of anti-doping rules, which prohibit the use of steroids, most hormones and many other performance-enhancing substances.

“You just have to be so careful,” Torres said. “You want to follow the [anti-doping] rules and do everything 100 percent right, and so you just have to make sure you are working with people that understand that.”

Given her sculpted physique, late-career excellence and reliance on such an entourage of science and medical advisers, Torres for years has been dogged by assumptions that she must be on something despite her record of never flunking a drug test.

“Unfortunately, Dara has been someone [about whom] people speculate, ‘She’s used drugs, she’s done different things,’ ” her trainer, Andy O’Brien, said. But “it’s very important to her that she doesn’t do anything she’s not supposed to do . . . She’s really, really uniquely gifted . . . [and] she’s fiercely competitive. She’s one of the most intense athletes I’ve ever worked with.”

Since before the 2008 Summer Games, she has employed two mashers, or stretchers, who have kneaded, walked on, massaged and rubbed her muscles three times weekly. She’s also worked with O’Brien, a personal trainer and former team trainer for the Florida Panthers.

After the Beijing Games, she began consulting with Bill Knowles, a rehabilitation specialist who has worked with Tiger Woods and other sports stars.

She considers O’Brien her upper-body trainer. Knowles is the lower-body guy. The two have brainstormed to develop odd-looking exercises designed to cater to more than her physique. They say they also want to work out her brain. They believe neurological stimulation will help elevate hormone production. For that reason, she does nothing as simple as a biceps curl; involved, complex exercises, they contend, keep the mind active.

Ted Carrick, a chiropractic neurologist who worked with NHL star Sidney Crosby, videotaped Torres’s eye movements and determined that her eyes responded slowly to moving patterns. Her inability to focus efficiently, she was told, was essentially expending energy and making her tired.

Carrick sent her home with exercises designed to eliminate gaps in her perception. Since then, three times a day, she follows a red dot as it moves in a pattern across a screen.

Jeoff Drobot, the medical director of the Calgary Centre for Naturopathic Medicine,

recommended that she use an oxygen concentrator (EWOT machine) to breathe pure oxygen while riding a stationary bike three times a week, hoping to flush out toxins. She subjects herself to electric shock therapy thrice weekly in the hope of stimulating her cells. She sleeps with a magnetic device under her mattress; it emits a frequency said to induce a more restful, healing sleep.

Said Drobot: “We’re trying to make her better in spite of her age.”

Drobot has also provided some nutritional supplements intended to boost energy or increase the production of certain hormones. She takes black licorice supplements, Indian and American ginseng, rhodiola, B vitamins and pure amino acids.

“I wasn’t doing this stuff in ’92 or 2000,” she said. “My body is so different than it was back then. I’m longer and leaner. Back then, I was just bulky. I was heavy. I felt like I was swimming through the water, not on top of the water.

“In 2000, I could bench press almost 200 pounds. There’s no way I could do that right now, but that’s not what you need to be strong in the water.”

‘She’s one of a kind’

Her slow return from the 2009 surgery was merely her first setback of many over the past four years. Every week has provided others. But there have been promising steps forward, too. She posted the second-fastest time in the 50-meter freestyle preliminary round (25.36) at a Grand Prix meet in Indianapolis in March before finishing sixth in the final in 25.47.

It would be crazy to count her out. As a 41-year-old at the 2008 Olympics, she won a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle, missing gold by 0.01 of a second a year after setting the American record in the event. She also claimed silver medals in the 4x100 relay and the 4x100 medley relay. In 2000, as the oldest member of the U.S. swim team at 33, she won five medals.

“Every little thing she does has a purpose,” Darzi said. “Everything is meticulously calculated for her to prepare herself for competition at any level. . . . She’s one of a kind.”

After a two-hour swim workout and two-hour-plus weight-training session recently, Torres drove to a nearby diner. She slid into a booth and ordered three eggs, bacon, cottage cheese, toast and fruit, then requested more bacon when her plate arrived with just four slices.

“Dara Torres!” called a woman who spotted her in the diner. “Oh my God! I am, like, so excited to meet you. . . . I can, like, really say I know who you are!”

Torres said she is still amazed by the impact she’s had. Her daughter’s elementary school recently organized a career day, and it never occurred to Torres to volunteer. One of her daughter’s teachers asked if she would come in and speak to the children about being an Olympic athlete, and Torres felt silly for not having thought of it herself.

“Is this really like a career?” she said. “I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

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