Part 1 – Introducing Dara Torres ...
Dara Torres recent comeback glory in the pool at the age of forty despite giving birth only little more than a year ago inspired me to write a post on why swimming differs from other sports when it comes to elite performance over thirty. I started to set out my reasons: the overriding importance of technique, the emphasis of strength over reaction times, advantages of sprint training, etc, but in doing so realized the obvious rebuttal to my theories needed to be addressed – that Dara Torres’ accomplishments have not come about because of a unique talent and the special nature of swimming but from doping. Of course I had certain preconceived ideas of Dara and her story before sitting down to write the piece. I knew, for example, all her Olympic gold medals have been won in team relays as I knew she owned two or three bronze medals from individual sprint events. I also was aware she had participated in four Olympics, three in a row with the fourth coming after missing the Atlanta games. These few facts came together to form two basic assumptions about her current swimming performance: the first was she won her individual medals in the first and/or second Olympics; and the second that she was a water rat who never really left the pool. But it only took a couple of hours to establish both these assumptions were flat out wrong.
The first assumption rests in large part on a personal belief an athlete who accomplishes something extraordinary without drug assistance needs to have a pedigree, a history of extraordinary achievement throughout his or her career. One doesn’t reach the pinnacle of sporting success from a standing start; there must be a clear progression of performance leading to the noteworthy event. This assumption also rests on the medical science’s consensus human physical performance peaks in the mid to late twenties. So with these in mind I looked for Dara Torres to have peaked sometime in her first three Olympics, most likely in her second, when she would be at her physical best. Yet I discovered all of Ms. Torres’ individual medals were won at the Sydney Olympics when she was thirty three while setting several personal bests in the process. The second assumption was based on the factors needed to create the physique of an Olympian or professional athlete. People don’t take up a sport and two years later stand on an Olympic podium or score goals in the World Cup. At least not anymore. Similarly the longer one is away the more performance degrades and the greater length of time it takes to recover lost musculature and coordination. An absence counted in years would also begin to run up against the inevitable and negative consequences of aging. These well known facts lead to my assumption she must have continued on actively swimming after her formal retirement and so retained her conditioning base¹. But again deeper inquiry found the exact opposite. The alarm bells started going off.
Obviously she has never been tested positive for contraband drugs so I’m raising the question of whether she uses them on entirely circumstantial evidence. Rather than just present my opinion I’m going to provide what quotes and facts I’ve gathered together with some commentary and let you, the reader, make up your own mind about Ms. Torres. It should be noted I have not obtained third party verification of any facts or statements presented by the sources used below unless stated otherwise. So judge accordingly and let’s begin.
Dara Torres was an insignificant figure in international swimming until her comeback in 2000 at the age of thirty-three and there are practically no references to her career on the internet until a year before those Games. The Jewish Virtual Library website (her father is Jewish), however, has a short blurb about her third Olympics citing the magazine Sports Illustrated as its source:
Torres retired from swimming for the first time in 1989, after a stellar career at the University of Florida, including 28 All-America honors – The Jewish Virtual Library.
There is very little in today’s press releases that this current attempt is her third comeback, not her second as most current articles either suggest or state outright. That’s a lot of quitting for someone who’s now once again back swimming internationally at the age of forty. If she isn’t in it for the love of the sport then I have to wonder perhaps if she’s in it for fame and fortune.
In January, 1991, after two years away from the pool, Torres put her TV career on hold and began training for the 1992 Games. With three Olympic relay team medals to her credit ... her aim was to win an individual medal. – The Jewish Virtual Library.
For a girl whose first international meet was the 1983 Pan American Games when she garnered a gold in the 400 meter freestyle relay at sixteen she would have trained at an elite level for at least six years before she left the sport having only won relay team Olympic medals, effectively leaving as an also ran in the quest for glory. Then, after two years off, Sports Illustrated reports she returned with the belief she had a shot at an individual Olympic medal. What changed for her to think she could swim faster?
Within weeks of her comeback, Torres was setting records in the 100m freestyle and the 100m butterfly – The Jewish Virtual Library
Within weeks of training she’s already swimming close to the times she swam at the Seoul Olympics? That’s amazing development, but evidently her comeback did not go far enough to allow her dream of winning an individual Olympic medal. While she did qualify for and swim at the Barcelona Games it was only as a spare for the 4x100 free relay, where she picked up yet another team gold and then promptly retired a second time from the sport. We then must go to a thirty two year old Dara training for the 2000 Sydney Games after seven years away.
Those who have seen Dara Torres the past two years on late night TV – talking to fitness guru Billy Blanks and his sweating, spandex-clad followers – might not recognize her now. The face is the same, but the blonde hair is cropped short, and she’s layered on about 20 pounds of lean muscle – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000
Twenty pounds of muscle! The Chronicle mentions she left a career in acting, modeling and broadcasting in July, 1999 so in a year’s time she added close to a kilo of muscle a month. Wow, any twenty something male would be absolutely delighted with that!
To hear her tell it, once she stopped swimming competitively after the 1992 Barcelona Games – after winning her fourth medal in three Olympic Games, all in relays, including two golds – she couldn’t even stand the sight of a pool. As a fan at the ’96 Games, she said, she attended nearly every major event except swimming. “In March’99, in New York, me and some friends went to Nationals,” she said, “I walked in the pool and said, “Ugh, chlorine.” And I saw the swimmers with these huge backs, and I thought, “They have to get up a 5 in the morning and I get up at 8 or 9.” I turned to one of my friends and said, “I’m so glad I don’t swim anymore.” “And three months later”, she continued, “I get back in the pool.” – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000
Nope, not in it for the love of the sport. A cynic such as I find it impossible not to note how an Olympic medal at the age of forty one would without doubt make her chosen career path as a television commentator, motivational speaker and corporate spokesperson a hugely successful and profitable one.
By March, she had re-entered the national radar, breaking seven personal bests and winning the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyles at the national championships. What she did in June at the Santa Clara International Invitational meet, the next-to-last major competition before the U.S. Olympic Trials, proved her smashing re-debut was no fluke. On the final day of the meet, Torres set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle at 24.73 seconds, breaking by 14-hundredths of a second the mark set by the runner-up in that race, Amy Van Dyken, in her four-gold-medal performance at the 1996 Olympics. It was the last of Torres’ four victories that weekend, following the 100 and 200 free and the 100 butterfly – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000
“Don’t get too complacent,” Torres said she tells herself, “I know there’s more I can do. If I stay injury free, I can go even faster – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000
“Now I hope I can do my best times ever. I was hoping to make the Olympic team, but I am much further ahead than I thought” – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007
Just how much faster was Dara at thirty three than when she was in her early twenties? Significantly so as evidenced by her Olympic Trials times: in 1988 she recorded a 55.74 100 free, 1:00.21 100 fly, and a 25.83 50 free; in 1992 she clocked a 55.48 100 free, 1:00.30 100 fly, and a 26.07 50 free; but by the time the 2000 Trials rolled along she was flying - a 54.62 100 free, 57.58 100 fly, and a 24.90 50 free. At this rate she should be setting world records by the time she’s collecting social security. With a 54.61 100 free in Rome this June and a 24.81 50 free at the Ft. Lauderdale Sectional this July apparently she’s well on her way at forty to doing just that. That this is occurring in her third comeback attempt – this time trying for her fifth Olympics – after six more years away and the birth of her first child is quite incredible.
¹ The Competitive Edge, Clarence Bass, undated: about the positive impact of high-level training has on deferring most deterioration associated with aging up to possibly early seventies for males, and argues actual physical peak for male swimmers closer to early thirties than conventionally accepted late twenties.
I would ask that you hold your comments until all three parts have been posted and append them to Part 3 so the discussion is not fragmented into parts as well - thank you