Legendary Torres defies odds, age
BEIJING -- Let's start by dispelling some rumors about Dara Torres. She hasn't been talking to the Chinese gymnastics team about age manipulation. She didn't jam the info computers in Beijing with page 457 of her swim résumé. She hasn't reserved a place to jump into the 2047 World Championships to celebrate her 80th birthday when her grandkids could be coaching her.
But let's also confirm this about the amazing 41-year-old Torres: Her two silver medals on Sunday in the swimming competition are a resounding victory for the masters' set, the over-40s who, at least in Torres' sport, are expected to get the nice going-away watch even before their 30th birthdays. If Jason Lezak, at 32, can joke that in swimming terms he's ready for AARP, Torres should be in her category of AANGTBRP: (American Association of Never Going to be a Retired Person).
Torres led for most of the 50-meter freestyle on Sunday, before being out-touched by Germany's Britta Steffen 24.06 seconds to 24.07. She came back shortly after and anchored the 4x100-meter medley team to second place behind heavily favored Australia. With her silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay, she now has 12 Olympic medals -- four of every color from a total of five Games. It's a good bet that some people of a certain age who were clapping in their living rooms were also dusting off their jogging shoes and looking for their tennis racquets. "If that's so, it's great," the new mom said afterwards. "If this helps anyone out there who is in their middle-aged years and has put off what they wanted to do because they thought they were too old or because they have a child, and that they can't balance what they want to do with being a parent, then that's great. What I've done is show them that they can do it."
Torres has been doing it since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she won a gold medal on the U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay team when she was just 17. That was five Olympic teams ago. Back then, disco was barely dead, Miami Vice was in vogue, Al Gore was still figuring out the Internet and Lionel Richie and Van Halen were going to No. 1 with songs like "Hello" and "Jump" that had very few other lyrics. And here's the most telling reference: Michael Phelps, the all-time leader in Olympic gold medals with 14, was not even born. A full three-quarters of Torres' 2008 female teammates weren't, either.
"For so long in this sport," said Natalie Coughlin, one of Torres' older teammates, at 26, "it was thought that if you're getting to 16, 17 or 18, you're getting to the end of your career. Dara has done a fantastic job in proving that you can continue to improve and that women can have children and get back into the sport. She has gotten rid of a mythology in swimming that has been there for so long." Torres is affectionately known as Mom and Legend to her teammates.
Yes, doping rumors have dogged her for years, but Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, points out that Torres is constantly modernizing her stroke, updating her technique more readily than her 20-year-old rivals who, by comparison, are more set in their technical ways. Her improvement curve is still changing, he says, because she is, too. If Torres is indeed thriving on spinach and fruit shakes, it is time to break out the line from When Harry Met Sally: "I'll have what she's having."
Consider what a difficult double she had on Sunday, as much mentally as physically. At 10:40 a.m. Beijing time, she left the awards stand, wearing the silver medal from the 50 free, a race she came within a fingernail of winning. In that time, she fought the temptation to review the race and review her career, because she still had one more race to swim with her teammates. Then she posed for pictures for photographers, tossed her flowers into the stands at 10:41, posed for some more pictures and apologized for running off to the ready room at 10:42. At that point, the announcer began introducing the swimmers for the medley relay. As her teammates walked onto the pool deck, waiting for her to join them, Torres placed her medal inside and skipped back toward Lane 4. The unofficial count of elapsed time between leaving the pool deck from an emotional ceremony and skipping back onto it to race again was 54 seconds. Of the eight women swimming the freestyle legs on their relay teams, Torres recorded the fastest split, at 52.27 seconds, but it wasn't enough to catch Australia's Libby Trickett, who had jumped in with a sizeable lead.
As she left the pool to wait for her second medal, Torres was actually answering questions from her rivals, Trickett and Steffen, about childbirth, at one point mimicking the actual procedure right in the ready room. In Beijing, the mom has lived up to both her nicknames and her legend.