At 40, Torres Is Back In the Fast Lane

Dara Torres
Dara Torres competed in her first Olympics in 1984, years before some of her competitors at the USA National Swimming Championships were born. (AJ Mast - AP)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 1 -- Just after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dara Torres unrolled her yellow yoga mat on a patch of grass near the Indiana University Natatorium and moaned. She had been awake since 6 a.m., tossing restlessly in her hotel bed. Her shoulders ached. Her sore ankles cracked when she walked. She felt nauseous, so she rubbed her hands over a midsection that had been swollen by pregnancy only 16 months earlier.

At 40, Torres felt like a tired, middle-age woman, which presented a major problem this particular morning. In a few hours, Torres was scheduled to swim the 100-meter freestyle at the USA Swimming National Championships -- a race she considered crucial in her attempt to qualify for a fifth Olympic Games. After spending more than six years out of the water, Torres would compete at nationals against an elite field consisting of swimmers less than half her age. She lay down on her yoga mat and turned on her pink iPod to listen to Led Zeppelin.

Two physical therapists, who work full time for Torres, bent over her and began the daily process of coaxing her body into swimming condition. Anne Tierney squeezed and rotated Torres's quadriceps. Steven Sierra pumped Torres's rib cage to force toxins out of her lungs.

"We're trying to take some years off of you," Tierney said.

"Yeah," Torres said. "I guess that might be good."

In her historic attempt to become the first swimmer older than 40 to compete in the Olympics, Torres has devoted herself to overcoming age. She hired a team of experts to facilitate her comeback: two physical therapists; two masseurs; a strength coach; a nanny; a sprinting coach; a head coach. She special-orders food from an organic company in Tampa.

The holistic approach yielded surreal results again Wednesday. Torres, a nine-time Olympic medal winner who first competed in the 1984 Games, won the 100-meter freestyle in 54.45 seconds, outracing favorites Dana Vollmer and Amanda Weir. Less than 15 months after launching her comeback with aspirations of making an Olympic relay team, Torres has emerged as a threat to qualify -- and possibly even medal -- in the individual freestyle sprints.

"Her comeback is just mind-boggling," said Michael Lohberg, Torres's coach in Coral Springs, Fla. "I don't think people can actually comprehend what's happening here. It hasn't happened before and it probably won't happen again. A 40-year-old who hasn't been swimming for years should never go this fast."

Torres announced her comeback to the swimming world Wednesday by dominating her first national competition in seven years. She jumped ahead immediately in the 100 free and then out-kicked the rest of the field down the stretch, finishing only .02 of a second behind her career-best time. Vollmer, 19, and Weir, 21, looked at each other quizzically at the end of the race, seemingly miffed at the 40-year-old mother who had stolen their event. Torres entered the final seeded fifth, and her finish earned a standing ovation.

"It's all a little crazy," Torres said. "This is happening so much quicker than I expected."

Torres won five medals, including two relay golds, at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. When she came home, she told friends that she would never swim again. She took jobs as a television reporter for ESPN, TNT and the Resort Sports Network. She started running and bicycling to stay in shape, forcing two knee surgeries. When the 2004 Olympics came on television, Torres hardly watched the swimming. She just didn't care, she said.

Torres became pregnant two years ago, and a doctor recommended swimming as a low-impact exercise to keep her in shape. Torres joined a local swim club near her Florida home, and her old addiction took hold. At five months pregnant, she wanted to race again. At eight months, she mentioned the 2008 Olympics. In April 2006, Torres swam and lifted weights on the same day she gave birth to her daughter, Tessa Grace.

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