This is the third 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.
Well if superlative talent doesn’t dictate comeback ‘success’ how is she doing it?
(Richard) Quick (Torres’ coach in 2000) told USA Today, “She’s packed in three years of training into one.” – Web Biography “Beat the Odds”
“Age I’m realizing is just a number. I’m just going to keep training hard and hopefully make the Olympic team”- Swimming World interview July 16, 2007
Quick doesn’t seriously expect us to buy that does he? I’d like to take a poll of Olympians and physiologists and see if they believe Torres can train three times more effectively and harder than anyone else. At least without doping. Heck, even with doping!
With this latest comeback, however, she’s taking a completely different approach to training than she used to qualify for Sydney.
Torres already has begun laying out a Beijing training program with Coral Springs coach Michael Lohberg. She says she can't do the near around-the-clock training and body work she did for Sydney but will focus on quality workouts - and plenty of family time - USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006
Even people 10 years younger than Torres will be delighted to learn her training program is dramatically different from that which took her to the Sydney Olympics. Her secret: less is more. She weighs less than when she competed in Sydney and she is swimming about 5.5 km each morning, five days a week (half the workload of most elite sprinters). She also does four strength and conditioning sessions a week, three stretching sessions (which last two hours each) and has two massages – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007
It was reading about her current training program which convinced me there was no possible way her performance could be clean. Ever since the great athletics coach Arthur Lydiard introduced his training concepts in the fifties about the importance of maximizing aerobic conditioning the pathway to the elite ranks in every sport where endurance plays a role is paved in hard work and then more of it. But the fact the more you swim the faster you race has been known by swimmers decades before Lydiard even if the underlying reasons weren’t understood. There hasn’t been a swimming champion since Duke Kahanamoku who hasn’t put in countless hours in the pool. You just have to look at the workouts of our current and recent stars to know this sporting axiom hasn’t diminished over time: Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker, Janet Evans, Ian Thorpe, Laure Manaudou, Alexander Popov, the list goes on and on without an exception; all spend or spent prodigious amounts of time in the pool whether they were distance specialists or sprinters. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of heavy training workloads has in modern swimming. American George Haines, widely recognized as one of history’s great swimming coaches (Santa Clara Blue Bells), talked about the importance distance training has in swimming by referring to the case of sprinter Matt Biondi who lowered the 100 free world record by nearly a full second over four years. In an excellent undated piece by Cecil M. Colwin (likely an excerpt from one of his many swimming books) titled “Learning from Great Athletes” Haines was quoted saying:
Matt went 41.8 for the 100 yards. He still holds the record. The reason he went 41.8, and the reason he went his 48.4 world record for the 100 meters in Korea, was that the guy was training overdistance; he was training for the 500, he was training for the 200, he even swam the 500 in dual meets, and he was our greatest 200 swimmer. But, as soon as he stopped training for the 200, and overdistance, he never ever, even in the 50, swam as fast again.So for my mind Dara Torres making a phenomenally successful comeback at age forty in a matter of months after several years in retirement, all on only half the mileage normally put in by world class sprinters, is difficult to comprehend to say the least. I especially like the reference to her concentrating on ‘quality’ workouts, as if the rest of the world’s elite swimmers and their coaches are deliberately scheduling crappy ones.
“I don’t remember going through this in 2000,” she says, “but even when I am swimming I an having these conversations in my head, about whether I can swim fast again – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007
The fact Torres shows a pattern of quitting and then coming back just before the Olympics is most illuminating. There was a lot of suspicion the reason for the absence of any top ranked Chinese women participating in the major international meets the past couple of years were because they didn’t want results which would allow FINA to test for drug enhancement on site or commence unannounced testing. The unstated belief was they were heavily doping right up until the very last moment and then would ‘coast’ into the Olympics on the overwhelming advantages thus gained. As it turned out the Chinese didn’t have a good world championships at all this past March which seems to pretty well put the kibosh on that theory, but the idea you can avoid being caught by not competing internationally until the last moment is perfectly valid and well known.
Torres says she is prepared for the naysayers. She has seen a few blogs questioning whether she is using performance enhancing drugs. "If people came to the pool, they would see how hard I work,” Torres said. “My whole career I swam against swimmers who were taking drugs. That’s not me.”- South Florida Sun-Sentinal “Olympian Back for More” Jun.3, 2007
Torres’s results have drawn doping allegations, which she understands and is prepared to openly address. She faced the same insinuations in her previous groundbreaking comeback, so she knows they will resurface. She has asked US head coach Mark Schubert to organize extra drug testing, including blood testing, so she can answer the doubters – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007
National head coaches aren’t responsible for drug testing, especially for arranging special testing for someone who’s not on the team and located a continent away in Florida. Has anyone asked Mark Schubert what testing he’s actually instituted for Torres? Nor would having her current coach Michael Lohberg monitor her be appropriate or practical. If she was serious about being squeaky clean why didn’t she instead contact USADA, or even FINA or WADA, the institutions actually responsible for keeping drugs out of our sport, and request to be placed on their testing lists immediately? I’m sure with her history they’d have loved the chance to test her early in her comeback.
"Is a relay spot doable? Yes," Torres says. "Can I do what I did in 2000? Absolutely not. But could I make the team? I've got a shot. Why do this? Because I want to!" - USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold” Aug.17, 2006
“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
Of course the money which could be earned from winning an Olympic medal at forty one would be really nice too. In a discussion thread on the popular swimming website Timed Finals a reader raised the point Dara had had her Olympics and if she qualified again she would be taking an Olympic berth away from a younger and more deserving swimmer. This attitude was universally rejected by the rest of the website’s readers who maintained the Olympics were for the best and fastest bar none; all which is perfectly good and true, but then we swimmers are perhaps individualistic to a fault. Someone with a background in team sports may understand better given at the start of every new season sports teams everywhere have to decide whether to stay with proven but aging veteran starters or go with young and inexperienced players and hopefully see them step up their play to their full potential. Looking at Torres’ attempt from that perspective I have to say for U.S. Swimming it seems better for some promising fifteen or sixteen year old gain some Olympic experience instead of seeing Torres swim another relay yet again.
There are many other aspects of Dara Torres’ remarkable success I’d like to discuss; how closely her swimming career parallels those of known drug cheats, or how after the mid-twenties any cessation in high-level training results in permanent, irretrievable performance decline¹, or ... but this post is already too long. If you haven’t come to a decision from what you’ve already read here throwing still more facts at you probably won’t help anyways. And there will be those who believe without actual evidence of Torres taking prohibited drugs she should receive the benefit of doubt and be considered innocent, even though I’ve pointed out it’s exceedingly unlikely Torres will be caught by a drug test at this late stage. Yet the evidence is everywhere, circumstantial but overwhelming. I, for one, will be cheering for everyone but Dara Torres when the U.S. Olympic Trials finally do roll around; and if she doesn’t qualify outright for the team then I’ll be crossing my fingers and hoping the selection committee does the right thing and leaves her behind when the team heads off to Beijing. Unfortunately for those of us who believe she cheats there’s little more we can do other than voicing our collective disgust, for until we can make the costs of cheating higher than the profits gained swimming will continue to be plagued by this. So if by chance you do attend one of Torres’ meets give her a whistle – let her know we don’t accept what she’s doing – for the good of the sport.
“The older I get, the less I do, the faster I go,” Torres says – The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40” Jun.20, 2007
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.
The Competitive Edge: http://cbass.com/SWIMMERS.HTM
The Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Torres.html
San Francisco Chronicle “Back in the Swim”: http://www.sfgate.com/
The Australian “Stopping the Clock at 40”: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/
USA Today “Torres has a New Reason to Seek Gold”: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/summer/
Web Biography “Beat the Odds”: http://biography.jrank.org/pages/3227/Torres-Dara-1967-Olympic-
New York Times “Near 30, Swimmer Resumes Sport for the Young”: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/sports/
Learning from Great Athletes: http://www.swimmingcoach.org/hof/coaches/haines_article1.htm
South Florida Sun-Sentinal “Olympian Back for More” - now archived and available for fee
Swimming World interview podcast July 17, 2007: http://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/tv/preview.asp