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Friday June 29, 2012Still Chasing the Dream: Dara Torres Begins Her Latest, and Last, Run at Swimming Immortality

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

OMAHA, Neb. -- At the 1992 Summer Olympics at Barcelona, her American teammates affectionately referred to gold medal-winning swimmer Dara Torres, then four years removed from an All-America career at the University of Florida and the oldest member of the U.S. team, as ... wait for it ... “Grandma.” 

 

She was 25 years old. 

 

Should Torres emerge from this weekend’s U.S. Swimming and Diving Trials here at the CenturyLink Center to claim a spot in her sixth Olympic Games -- which would be an American record -- what in the world will her teammates call her then? 

 

“Oh God, I don’t know,” Torres, now 45, said with a laugh during a phone interview last week from her home in Jupiter, Fla. “And I don’t even want to think about it.” 

 

She may have to, but first things first. 

 

Torres has banked the umpteenth comeback of her 22-year professional career on one race, the women’s 50-meter freestyle, which will begin paring the competition Sunday with nearly two dozen preliminary heats, feeding into Sunday night’s semifinals and the Monday night’s final when only the top two swimmers will secure a trip with the U.S. team to London. 

 

“She definitely has a chance,” said Coach Gregg Troy, who guided the Gators’ women’s team to an NCAA championship in 2010 and is charged with leading the American team this summer. “Right now, she’s seeded around sixth, and if she makes the finals anything can happen in a race like that. She’s a great racer.” 

 

Still. 

 

As if Torres’ drop-dead physique isn’t jaw-dropping enough (sort of like her swimming career that last saw Torres claim three silver medals in Beijing in 2008 at 41), her latest and last run at athletic immortality has come following shoulder surgery to ease a degenerative joint disease, followed by a radical second surgical procedure in which cartilage from one knee was placed in the other. 

 

The 18-month rehabilitation from both surgeries was positively grueling, but that was only Phase 1. Then she had to get back in the pool, put on 10 pounds of muscle and re-train her body for a race that (she hopes) will take about 25.60 seconds, give or take a couple hundredths. 

 

“Putting my body through what I’ve put it through these years, yes, it’s taken its toll,” said Torres, who medaled in the 1984, ’88, ’92, ’96, ’00 and ’08 games, including four golds. “I feel much better in the morning than I do at night. Sometimes, nights are pretty tough. I’m a middle-aged woman, so I have those aches and pains, and with my hormones dropping it takes me longer to recover. But it’s also challenged me mentally as far as what I can and can’t do. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it.” 

 

She hasn’t done it alone. 

 

There’s her daughter, 6-year-old Tessa Grace, who’s been her mother’s inspiration, sometimes walking around the house with her Mom’s medals clunking around her neck. 

 

“She’s the medal that means the most to me,” Torres said. 

 

With a training budget that reportedly tops $100,000 per year, Torres employs a staff that includes upper and lower body trainers, massage therapists that stretch her oftentimes two hours a day, a nutritionist in charge of her food intake and supplements, and naturopathic specialist who monitors her hormones. 

 

Three times a week, Torres does stationary bike work while breathing pure oxygen. Because she can’t do strength exercises that load her knees, Torres hooks herself to electrodes that contract her muscles. At night, the magnetic rhythms from a machine under her mattress help her sleep.  

 

Sounds like “The Bionic Woman” stuff without the bionics. 

 

“I have a support system,” she said. “It’s not just me.” 

 

There are skeptics in the swimming community that would take that latter statement a step further. 

 

When she takes the podium here to meet with the national (and some international) media in advance of her races this weekend, those suspicions of performance-enhancing drugs fueling her story are sure to come up. 

 

Torres will remind everyone in the room that she’s never flunked a drug test. Never, and has offered to take them wherever and whenever. 

 

“Unfortunately, Dara has been someone [about whom] people speculate,” her trainer, Andy O’Brien, told The Washington Post. “It’s very important to her that she doesn’t do anything she’s not supposed to do . . . She’s really, really uniquely gifted . . . [and] she’s fiercely competitive. She’s one of the most intense athletes I’ve ever worked with.”

 

Troy knows all about that Torres. 

 

“Dara making it the last time at 41 was amazing, but still being in the hunt at 45 with all the injuries she’s had, that’s beyond amazing and is a tribute to her,” he said. “She’s so meticulous about what she does, and she certainly has put in the hours. Hers is the shortest event in swimming. It’s not grueling training; it’s more about power and she has great natural technique. It’s not going to be easy, but she has the skill and desire to do it.” 

 

Which is why she’s on the brink of doing something no American has ever done. 

 

And that begs the question. 

 

Can she win? 

 

Torres has the perfect answer, no matter what happens. 

 

“I already have.” 

 

 

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