Friday, July 27, 2007

I Came to Praise Torres, But Intend to Leave Seeing Her Drowned

Part 2 – And Her Many Comebacks ...

This is the second part of a three part series looking at the question of whether Dara Torres has used performance enhancing drugs to enable her remarkable return to elite swimming at the age of thirty nine.

She had no thoughts of trying for a record fifth Olympics before she became pregnant in 2005 and dipped back into the pool three or four times to stay in shape – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007

During her pregnancy, she laid off exercise until she was safely into her second trimester. Then she began swimming – USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006

Torres, 39, who has won nine Olympic medals in her illustrious career, set a world record in her age group (35 – 39) during the mixed 200-meter freestyle relay in last week’s Masters World Championships in Stanford, California. Just 3½ months after giving birth to her first child, she swam a leadoff 50 freestyle relay split of 25.98 (the world mark was 26.53). She also won the 50 free (26.67) despite carrying a nursing mom’s extra pounds – USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006

So if I’m calculating this properly Torres started training around the beginning of November, 2005 after six years retirement and little more than nine months later, most of it pregnant, swam a sub-26 second fifty free. Really, I’m having problems with this. Less than a year ago I returned to competitive swimming after a long absence to rehabilitate a back injury – a case history I believe is very much comparable to Torres’ situation. Considering her six year absence, her pregnancy, and discounting her advantage in youth as mostly offset by the superior testosterone-based advantages accruing to my sex, then I believe an argument can be made Torres and I started our programs from roughly the same level of conditioning. Even our training programs are remarkably similar (more on that later). But I almost immediately ran into problems overtraining and perforce had to ease off and recuperate. Taking roughly three times the number of months Torres took to go from giving birth to setting a masters world record I’ve only made it to the level of a marginal AA level fifteen year old. One year more and she’s progressed enough to now be one of the top female sprinters in the world. How has she developed so much more quickly than I, a human male supposedly with all the advantages? It’s not that I wouldn’t expect her to do better; it’s the fact she is just blowing me away which causes the problems. That and the dizzying, nosebleed level she’s ascended to. I can well imagine the mutterings about comparing myself to a multiple Olympic medalist like Dara Torres and daring to accuse her of using drugs because she’s doing better than me. That’s the sour grapes dismissal: those who suspect drug assisted times are merely envious individuals who cannot face their own inadequacies in the face of the greatness exhibited by the accused. You’d be wrong, but I freely admit I’m nobody. So let’s then pick someone else to compare to. How about another comeback attempt by a former Olympian, but this time someone making the attempt at the same age as Torres, and who commenced the attempt about the same number of months before the Olympics as Dara has this time around? And he had talent to spare, no mere relay participant like Torres, but a true Olympic champion. In fact Mark Spitz is considered one of the greatest swimmers of all time. When Spitz started his comeback attempt in late 1989 he had some realistic expectations of success, after all his world record time for the 100 fly seventeen years before would have given him a ranking as the year’s third fastest in the world when he reentered the sport, and he was going to concentrate only on the 100 fly instead of swimming multiple events as he had done in 1972. Certainly he was highly motivated. If the massive media attention he received wasn’t incentive enough the million dollars offered by filmmaker Bud Greenspan for Olympic qualifying certainly would ensure his complete dedication to the effort. Yet in the end his comeback fell short. In 1991 he raced Olympians Tom Jager and Matt Biondi in two separately televised fly match sprints but lost both; and after two years he quit the attempt, leaving with a comeback best 100 fly time of 58.03 - a superb time for a forty year old but well off the minimum standards for the U.S. Trials, much less qualify for the Olympics themselves. Even the great Mark Spitz cannot reach peak performance in a couple of years and undoubtedly he could see the road ahead would be far harder and longer than he expected or desired. The shrinking chance of reward had ceased to be worth the mounting cost.

In view of her fervor, fellow Olympic swimming medalist Donna de Varona surmised that Torres had quit before reaching the greatness she was capable of – Web Biography “Beat the Odds” (regarding her 2000 attempt)

One of the positives Mark Spitz noted about his comeback possibilities was how much training regimes had changed since he swam, especially dryland training, and how much faster he could have been if he had competed today. In a May 21st, 1990 interview with Time Magazine he was asked about his experience weight training for the first time. “Yeah free weights, he responded, “they've learned a lot in the past 20 years. Today the weight training can specifically exercise certain muscle groups for freestyle sprints or butterfly sprints or whatever.” Looking at his Munich pictures I can well believe strength training back then would’ve allowed even greater performances by this remarkably talented man. However even better training couldn’t overcome the handicap of age nor speed up his rehabilitation. He needed years, not months, to rebuild his body. So if correcting a clearly flawed training program couldn’t help Spitz I wonder what de Varona, a former teammate of his, thinks Torres’ problem was back in 1984, and 1988, and 1992 that held her back from the ‘greatness’ which finally showed up less than a decade later in her thirties?

The results since then shouldn’t be all that surprising, Torres said. The seven years away from the pool saved her body some wear and tear, she said. She eats better and works out differently. The time away has given her what she called “a newfound love for the sport” – San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim” Aug.9, 2000

It’s difficult to overstate just how phenomenal Torres’ 2000 and present comebacks have been, both in how rapidly she returned to her physical peak after an extended absence and the level of excellence reached at such a late age. Let me use another Olympian’s return to the pool for some further perspective. While not the female equivalent of Spitz Allison Wagner’s past accomplishments in the pool were still of the highest caliber. At the Atlanta Games in 1996 she took silver in the 400 individual medley by beating the defending Olympic champion, Hungary’s great Krisztini Egerszegi, and two Chinese favourites – only to see the now disgraced Michelle Smith of Ireland cheat her out of the gold. Eleven years younger than Torres Allison Wagner then quit swimming for several years before returning in 2004. After two years in a ‘low-key program’ (a strange way of saying she swam Masters²) she applied to and was accepted by the California Aquatics Swim Team for training at an elite level³. And like Torres a year later she’s swimming in international meets, albeit local ones. At the recent Santa Clara International Invitational she placed as high as sixth with a 25.97 50 free and finished 32nd in the 100 with a 57.99 (the endurance required to swim a 100 takes some time to acquire), 39th in the 100 butterfly, and 112th in the 200 free (the endurance to handle a 200 obviously takes even longer). Excellent times by a woman who, though arguably at one time was the world’s best all-round female, is still almost thirty and has been training for only three years. But certainly nothing which would make anyone believe she’s going to challenge for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team – at least for this Olympics.

² Wagner is currently is ranked as one of the world's All-Time Top Ten Masters females in the 200 and 400 IM 25 to 29 age group
³ New York Times “Near 30, Swimmer Resumes Sport for the Young” July 7, 2007

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

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