By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
PARKLAND, Fla. -- Dara Torres lay on her stomach on the floor of her formal dining room as a small man with pants rolled up to his knees walked gingerly on her lower back, his bare feet in search of overstressed muscle tissue.
With her head half-buried in a pillow, Torres scheduled an appointment with her chiropractor on her iPhone, then began trying to persuade her toddler Tessa to listen to her nanny and take a nap. Another pair of bare feet belonging to a woman seated in a dining room chair above Torres's head, meanwhile, dug into her shoulders and upper arms.
"Tessa, it's time to go night-night," Torres said firmly, if a bit muffled.
But "I want," Tessa said before dissolving in tears, "to 'mash' Mommy."
After inspiring hordes of middle-aged athletes and working parents by winning three silver medals in her fifth Olympics last summer at age 41, Torres has returned for at least another year of unorthodox training and competition against elite athletes mostly half her age. Though her primary focus is winning a place on the U.S. team that will compete at the world championships in Rome in late July, she also is contemplating a run at the 2012 London Summer Games -- at which she would be 45.
"It just comes from within," Torres said. "Once I have a goal in my head, I just go for it."
Torres said she fully intended to retire after the Beijing Games, but after a week in the pool, a telephone conversation with a trusted coach and a visit to a psychic medium on whom she has relied for guidance for years, she changed her mind.
She considered the practical fact that she seems to have mastered the trifecta of single motherhood, middle age and a high-intensity, multifaceted training program (which includes the "mashing" she receives from her pair of professional stretchers, Anne Tierney and Steve Sierra, three times per week). And, most importantly, she believes she can get faster.
Her fourth retirement, in short, lasted a couple weeks, ending even while she was still celebrating her Olympic success. Torres appeared on countless talk shows, gave dozens of speeches, underwent surgery on national television and wrote a book due for release in April ("Age Is Just a Number").
"I knew she wasn't going to stop after the Olympics," Joseph Chalal, her orthopedic surgeon, said by phone from his office in Boynton Beach, Fla. Her swim coach, Michael Lohberg, "and I laugh about this. I knew that wasn't the end."A Crowded Routine
Torres's life involves many moving parts and constant background noise. Except for those occasions when she sits in the quiet of her medium's office, where he has for eight years amazed her with the accuracy of his predictions, Torres has learned to function in a world of distraction, mini-crises and unexpected hitches. And she has found she thrives in it.
Tessa dragged over one of her tiny wooden chairs midway through her mother's mashing session and joined in.
"I need popcorn, and then I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese," Tessa announced.
"Chuck E. Cheese?" said Torres, seemingly oblivious of the three pairs of feet by then burrowing vigorously into various body parts. "Where did you get all this information?"
"After swim class," Tessa said. "I want to go."
Twice divorced, Torres tried for years to have a child before she got pregnant with Tessa in 2005 with her then-partner David Hoffman, a fertility doctor with whom she remains friends. She didn't realize her post-pregnancy swims would lead her to another Olympics; nor did she imagine she could construct a more sophisticated and comprehensive training program than she ever followed in her youth while still finding sufficient time to spend with Tessa, whom she reluctantly left at home during the Olympics.
Torres rushed out of Beijing as soon as she finished racing, never mind that the Summer Games were only halfway over and no one else on the swim team departed in such haste. "I can't say I didn't enjoy it. I had a fantastic time," she said. "But it was really tough emotionally, missing my daughter."
When she took Tessa to school the morning after her late-night arrival home, a teacher looked at her with confusion and said: "Aren't you in Beijing? Didn't I just see you on TV?"
As much as Torres relished sinking into a placid daily routine of packing lunches and hanging out with her daughter, she found herself missing her physical routine. And several things gnawed at her. One was the slim margin, one-hundredth of a second, in which she had lost out on what would have been her first individual Olympic gold medal, in the 50-meter freestyle. Another was a feeling that, however strange it seemed, she hadn't reached her peak.
So she called Mark Schubert, the USA Swimming national team head coach.
"I said, 'I think I might still swim,' " Torres recalled. "He said: 'Why wouldn't you? You're the fastest American in the country, you're less than a tenth [of a second] off the world record and you're still improving. Why wouldn't you swim?' "
At that precise moment, she couldn't. At the end of August, Chalal had performed surgery on her shoulder. He would repair her thumb and knee soon after. Even so, Torres, who swam her career-best marks in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle last year, began imagining more best times.
With her right arm in a sling, Torres invited Bruno Darzi and Chris Jackson, coaches at the Coral Springs Aquatic Center who have assisted Torres as Lohberg gradually returns from his battle with a blood disorder, to lunch at a local restaurant. They did not require much convincing.
"She said she thinks she can go faster," Darzi said. "We agreed."
Torres finally contacted Bernard McCue, a medium and spiritual minister ordained in Chesterfield, Ind., by the Indiana Association of Spiritualists. He sees patients in an office in the back of a simple, one-story house in the Fort Lauderdale area. He had nailed his first major prediction, Torres said; when she feared in her mid-30s she would never get pregnant, he had told her she would have a daughter.
He continued to impress her with other forecasts and even out-of-the-blue telephone calls in which he provided answers to questions she had been mulling over at the time. She called him from Beijing to tell him he was the person most responsible for her decision to attempt to compete there. In 2006, she recalled, he told her she would win many accolades and "inspire people" over the next two years.
"He's been on with everything," Torres said. "I don't ever want to have him be my crutch, where I rely on him for everything . . . [but] he gives me peace of mind."
Torres also said: "My agent was apprehensive about putting it in the book. She said, 'People will think you're crazy.' "
Yet Torres does not think it's crazy. McCue described himself as able to convey messages "from the other side" and called Torres a "sweet soul."
"When she first came to me, we tuned in to her guides and teachers and my guides and teachers," McCue said by phone from his office. "They said, 'Yeah, [Torres] can do it.' "
Added McCue: "I'm seeing in my mind's eye more records for her to break, even her own records. Records have nothing to do with age."Defying Age
Despite her three post-Olympic surgeries, Torres competed at a world-class meet in Austin early last month and set a personal best in the 50-yard freestyle before winning the event that night.
"I don't think anything Dara does surprises me anymore," said Chalal, the surgeon. "She's able to overcome the normal physical problems you see with people her age. . . . I see this wear and tear on all weekend warriors who are 41. The problems she has are common."
The way she overcomes them is not.
Torres, the daughter of a Las Vegas hotelier who grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., admitted that she probably spends around $100,000 annually on her team of personal trainers and various other regular physical and mental caretakers, including Andy O'Brien, the strength and conditioning coach for the NHL's Florida Panthers.
Because of her extraordinary achievements and unusual training regimen, Torres has been pelted with questions about performing-enhancing drug use, but she points out that she asked the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to perform extra testing on her in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in the hope of proving she is clean. She has never failed a drug test. Chalal, meantime, said he has treated plenty of steroid users and that Torres displays neither the physical nor psychological signs of use.
"She is definitely tapping into something that others aren't, without a doubt," Tierney said. "She took a big risk on herself."
Torres was determined to enjoy her fifth Games in Beijing, so certain was she it would be her last. She recalled cracking a joke about menopause moments before the 50 final to loosen the tension among the competing swimmers.
"To see those kids and the fright on their faces," Torres said. "At that point, that Olympic final was the most important thing in their whole lives. I'm not saying I didn't feel like I was going to throw up, because I did. But I knew how to channel it.
"In a way, people talked about age as a disadvantage, but I think it has worked to my advantage."