In the Fast Lane: Dara Torres

At 41, Dara Torres is one of the fastest swimmers in the world – and she’s set to become the only female swimmer from the United States to compete in four Olympic Games.

dara torres

Update: In her fifth Olympic appearance, Dara Torres won three silver medals in Beijing, bringing her Olympic medal count to 12. The 41-year-old swimmer medaled in all three of the events she raced: the Women’s 4 x 100-Meter Freestyle Relay, the Women’s 4 x 100-Meter Medley Relay and the Women’s 50-Meter Freestyle. Read more about her Olympic achievements at www.nbcolympics.com.

Nine-time Olympic medal–winner Dara Torres retired from competitive swimming after the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, at age 33, because, by competitive swimming standards, competing at that age — let alone winning — simply wasn’t done.

“Even back then, that was old,” says Torres, now 41. She’d done what she’d set out to do in the water, she says, and this was just the natural progression of things. “So I was moving on,” she recalls. “I remember someone asking me after the 2000 Olympics if I would do this again in another eight years, and I thought, ‘At 41? No way!’”

The Southern California native has had to swallow her words. Torres, who’d started swimming as a child after watching her older brothers compete on their swim teams near their home, roared back onto the competitive swimming scene in 2007. Now, she’s not only expected to qualify for the Beijing Olympics but is favored to add a 10th medal to her collection. She staged her comeback at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in August, kicking her way to a first-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle, missing her career-best time by only .02 seconds. She won the 50-meter freestyle at the same meet with the fourth-fastest time ever recorded for a woman in that event.

It all happened somewhat by accident.

Torres hadn’t been in a pool in nearly six years, since her retirement in 2000. She’d been focusing instead on her career as a sportscaster and her plan to start a family. Happily, by 2005, she had found success in both. Unfortunately, terrible morning sickness temporarily overshadowed the joy of being pregnant. She decided to try swimming to relieve her symptoms.

It worked. In fact, she felt so great swimming again that she joined a local masters club to get more pool time. Shortly after giving birth, she began to think about racing again and she was back in the pool three weeks later. This past summer, when she saw how fast she was swimming, she set her sights on Beijing.

While Torres’s doctor cautioned her against returning to swimming too soon for physical reasons, her real challenge was more emotional. She now faced what every working parent occasionally encounters: that twinge of guilt.

“At the beginning, when I first hired someone three times a week to watch Tessa, I had the guilt trip going a bit,” says Torres, who now makes her home in southern Florida. “Yet there are a lot of working moms out there, and, I told myself, ‘This is what I have to do.’”

These days, Torres — who’s recovering from two surgeries, one to repair a torn meniscus in her knee and another to mend tissue in her shoulder — is training on a modified schedule. She’s in the pool two hours a day, five days a week, and she spends an hour and a half lifting weights four days a week. Every other day, she stretches for two hours. She’ll increase the intensity and duration of her workouts as she heals and the Olympic trials near.

She also gets massage and physical therapy several days a week, a routine she maintains as part of her permanent training regimen. Her massage and physical therapists work on her regularly while she’s training, and her stretching coach travels with her to every meet to work on her extensively both before and after she races. Part of their goal is to open up her core muscles to give her better rotation in the water. The larger goal of all her training, though, is to feel “light in the water” — to be, above all, efficient.

“My training is much different than ever before,” she explains. “Now it’s not about how much I can lift, but how efficiently I can lift, so I can be efficient in the pool.”

Her intensive stretching and bodywork regimen also helps on the days when she feels her age. “I have my ups and downs,” she admits. “Some days I feel like I’m 40 and some days I’m flying through the water feeling great. [As you age,] you have no idea when it’s going to happen. I had one meet last summer, and I swam a couple times that day and the next day I couldn’t even move. You don’t recover as fast as you used to. Luckily, I have a lot of people working with me as a team.”

Her many years of experience give her advantages, too, she says. “The mental aspect is easier now. I deal with [the rigors of competition] much better than before, having done it so many times and having already faced the different obstacles coming my way.”

Yet, one challenge remains constant: the nerves. “Even though I’m older, I still get really, really nervous right before a big meet. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to throw up!” she says. “But the minute I get on the blocks, it all just goes away.”

Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.

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