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One for The Aged
Kelli Anderson
August 25, 2008
She didn't strike gold, but 41-year-old Dara Torres made quite a splash at the Water Cube anyway, swimming the fastest times in her 24-year career while winning three silver medals for the U.S.
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August 25, 2008

One For The Aged

She didn't strike gold, but 41-year-old Dara Torres made quite a splash at the Water Cube anyway, swimming the fastest times in her 24-year career while winning three silver medals for the U.S.

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AFTER FIVE OLYMPICS and a pile of medals, you'd think 41-year-old Dara Torres would know everything there is to know about preparing for a race. Since coming out of retirement for the third time two years ago, she had perfected her starts, refined her stroke and hired a small army of people to coach, tone, stretch and strengthen her. She had considered every detail—except, perhaps, this one: You should never trim your nails the night before an Olympic event. The length of a single fingernail clipping might have been all that separated Torres from a gold medal in the women's 50 freestyle at the Water Cube in Beijing as she lost to Germany's Britta Steffen by one hundredth of a second on Sunday.

Torres had a near-perfect start and led most of the way in the one-lap sprint, but she was out-touched at the wall by Steffen, who finished in an Olympic-record time of 24.06. Though an individual gold would have been a first for Torres, a silver (her best in a solo event) was hardly less remarkable. It was the first such Olympic swimming medal won by any woman over the age of 33—and the 33-year-old who won a medal was Torres, back in 2000. She also set an American record with a time of 24.07. "I don't like to lose," she said Sunday, "but I have to keep it in perspective. A year ago I didn't think I'd be going for the gold."

Torres didn't get much time to bask in the limelight or ponder the might-have-beens. Less than two minutes after hurriedly leaving the 50-free medal ceremony, she was back on the pool deck in cap and goggles to anchor the 4×100 medley relay. After hitting the water .87 of a second behind Australia's Libby Trickett on the freestyle leg, Torres closed the gap but couldn't quite catch the 23-year-old Trickett as the Australians crushed their own world record by more than three seconds. As the Aussies celebrated, Torres's achievement in the race was momentarily overlooked: Her time of 52.27 was the fastest split ever in a women's medley relay.

During a week when Michael Phelps's historic eight gold medals absorbed most of the considerable spotlight shining on the swimming competition in Beijing, Torres's accomplishments—three silver medals in three events (the 4×100 free and medley relays and the 50 free) and personal bests all around—were overshadowed but no less astonishing. While Phelps was being compared with the greatest Olympians of all time, no one could find the right description for Torres's feats. Is there another world-class athlete (a mother, no less) in such a physically demanding sport who has performed not just well, but also at his or her best after 40? "I don't have a category for that," says U.S. men's coach Eddie Reese. "I think [only] Ripley's has a category for that."

TORRES WAS NOT the only swimmer not named Phelps who turned in a notable performance for the U.S. Jason Lezak, the hero of the men's 4×100 free relay—his blistering anchor leg caught France's Alain Bernard at the wall and kept Phelps's quest for eight golds alive—followed that performance with a bronze in the 100 free, his first individual medal in three Olympics, and another clutch anchor leg, in the 4×100 medley relay, when he held off Australia's surging Eamon Sullivan to clinch Phelps's final gold medal. Ryan Lochte denied teammate Aaron Peirsol a chance to become the first swimmer in 24 years to repeat as Olympic champion in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes when he beat Peirsol in the 200 back in world-record time. Meanwhile, Natalie Coughlin won six medals, including a gold in the 100 back, bringing her career total to 11, just one shy of the totals of Torres and former teammate Jenny Thompson.

A few Olympic rookies made appearances on the medal stand too: Rebecca Soni, a communications major at USC, didn't make the team in the 100 breaststroke (she finished fourth at the Olympic trials), yet she was asked to swim it in Beijing in place of Jessica Hardy, who withdrew from the team on Aug. 1 after testing positive for a banned substance. Soni surprised even herself by winning a silver medal, then later added a gold in the 200 breaststroke, in which she beat heavily favored Leisel Jones of Australia with a world-record time of 2:20.22.

The women's 200 breaststroke was just one of 22 events in which world records fell at the Water Cube last week. U.S. national team director Mark Schubert had expected the record books to be shredded in Beijing—before the Games he said he thought every record could fall—but even he was stunned by the speed and depth of the Olympic field. "It was way faster than we expected," he says. "This was the toughest swim meet ever."

As Torres shone in that hypercompetitive arena, part of her attention was elsewhere. During the team's posttrials training camp at Stanford in July, Michael Lohberg, the 58-year-old coach who had been shepherding Torres through what he has described as her "crazy" quest, learned he had aplastic anemia, a rare and life-threatening blood disorder. The news shattered Torres. She remained in constant contact with Lohberg and met with a sports psychologist "to help me just deal with the emotions," she says.

Speaking on Sunday from his hospital room in Bethesda, Md., where he was in stable condition and receiving blood transfusions, Lohberg—whom Torres called soon after her final event—says he's proud she maintained her focus. "She couldn't have raced better," he says. "She said, 'I'm pissed [about not winning a gold].' She hates to lose, but eventually I think she'll realize it was a phenomenal performance."

Torres credits her much younger teammates for helping keep her grounded and making her laugh. At the team's final training camp in Singapore, most of the skits performed by the rookies mocked Torres. They touched on Torres's trademarks—her ever-present headband, BlackBerry, massage therapists and rolling bag, which she pulls around "like an old lady," she admits.

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