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The spider came dancing down the video screen and Dara Torres zapped it. Ptnnng! Ptnnng! Whatever little troll or mushroom man streamed by she knocked it dead, and Rowdy Gaines seemed awestruck. This was Centipede, by Atari, his game. Gaines, 25, the fastest 100-meter freestyler in the world, had the moves for it, a sprinter's quickness. But Torres, 17, the women's champ in the 50-meter free, has "catlike reflexes," as Mark Schubert, her coach at the Mission Viejo swim club, says. "She has that rare ability to shift her weight at the instant before the gun goes off."
Torres's next video victim didn't have that ability. It was the Centipede itself, for which the game was named. Ptnnng! Ptnnng! It didn't have a chance. Neither did Gaines. "My God," he called out, "you've passed my alltime best score."
Torres and Gaines played their game of Centipede in March in Indianapolis, between sessions of the national indoor championships. The day before, Torres had won at 50 meters in 25.88, only .26 of a second off her American-record and world-best time, and the 10th best in history. In the previous two years she had also achieved the third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-best times, and she was still a month short of her 17th birthday. But a world best isn't a world record. There are none in the 50; the distance isn't contested at international meets, and to swim at the Los Angeles Olympics, Torres would have to step up her training and qualify for the 100-meter free at the U.S. trials later this month in Indianapolis. And so for the past few months Torres has been working very hard.
She does have one very special physical advantage over much of her swimming and video games competition, an unusually high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fiber, the kind that is suited to explosive, or sprint, activity. Do fast-twitch muscle and "catlike" reflexes go together? "Obviously," says Schubert. Last year muscle biopsies were done on Torres and 24 other Mission Viejo swimmers and eight divers, all finalists in national meets. She tested out at 70% fast twitch, 20 percentage points higher than the average swimmer and higher than everyone but two-time world diving champion Greg Louganis, who also had 70% fast-twitch.
Along with Torres's muscle type and reflexes goes a hyperactive nature that might have posed problems had she not discovered the perfect sporting outlet for it. As she says, "You need a lot of hyperness to get you going for sprint events. You can't just sit there moping. I can never do that anyway. Most of my hobbies are sports—windsurfing and jet-skiing—not just sitting around reading books."
The Beach Boys must have had someone like the 5'10½" Torres in mind when they sang "I wish they all could be California girrrls...." One of these days Torres, who lives in Beverly Hills, will undoubtedly begin doing serious damage to a whole string of outstanding young men. She is precociously at home with her body and her brimming energy; her sweet, vaguely snub-nosed face wears a perpetual tawny glow; and her gleaming teeth are nearly always on display. As one Mission Viejo adult friend says, "Dara is so outgoing that nearly everyone is comfortable with her. Another thing that really stands out about her is that she always wants to be Number One in everything she does."
Two years ago, on the night of April 9, Torres was a 14-year-old high school girl who had never finished better than sixth in a national competition. She stood above Lane 5 at the start of the 50-yard freestyle event at the Senior Short Course Nationals, in Gainesville, Fla., glancing nervously to her right. She heard the announcer say, "In Lane Four, never defeated by an American at 50 yards, winner of 14 national collegiate championships, a junior at the University of Texas—Jill Sterkel."
Then the horn went off, and 22.44 seconds later the 20-year-old Sterkel was no longer undefeated by an American at 50 yards. Torres was a national champion. She missed breaking Sterkel's American record by only .03 of a second.
Torres was competing then for the Tandem Swim Club of Culver City, Calif., and it was Tandem coach Terry Palma who refined the distinctive start that helped her beat Sterkel—a "track" start, with one leg extended back. Many swimmers at Gainesville had never seen it before. And it was Palma who taught her how to finish with her shoulders perpendicular to the wall, a position that allows for maximum reach. But he admits that many factors made Torres the champion she is today, and he raves about her "phenomenal reaction time" at the gun. "She should be the fastest woman in the world in the 100-meter free," Palma says. "No one in the U.S. should touch her. She's that talented." But Palma, who has a master's degree in psychology, adds, "She's immature. She doesn't have the mental attitude yet to be as successful as she should be."
One day in May 1983, Torres, her sister, Lara, 15 and a promising swimmer, and a friend were on their way to a weight-training session when they heard that their favorite rock group, Men At Work, was in town. Torres started going down the list of hotels in the yellow pages and phoning to ask for Colin Hay, the group's leader. When she finally heard "I'll connect you," she slammed down the phone and started shrieking. Recovering her composure, she redialed and asked for another member of the group, and when his phone began ringing she hung up again. This time, after calming down, the girls put on their Men At Work T shirts, Torres grabbed the scrapbook of the group's press clippings she had put together, and they drove to the hotel. They sat outside in the car for more than an hour, playing their favorite Men At Work tape, until a limo pulled up and Hay got out. Torres, nearly hysterical and screaming "Oh my God," had to be dragged from the car. But soon she was snapping pictures and getting autographs. Nearly four hours after she had started phoning, the little adventure was over. So was the chance to work out.