Sunday, August 5, 2007

At 40, Torres Is Back In the Fast Lane

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007; Page E01

INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 1 -- Just after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dara Torres unrolled her yellow yoga mat on a patch of grass near the Indiana University Natatorium and moaned. She had been awake since 6 a.m., tossing restlessly in her hotel bed. Her shoulders ached. Her sore ankles cracked when she walked. She felt nauseous, so she rubbed her hands over a midsection that had been swollen by pregnancy only 16 months earlier.

At 40, Torres felt like a tired, middle-age woman, which presented a major problem this particular morning. In a few hours, Torres was scheduled to swim the 100-meter freestyle at the USA Swimming National Championships -- a race she considered crucial in her attempt to qualify for a fifth Olympic Games. After spending more than six years out of the water, Torres would compete at nationals against an elite field consisting of swimmers less than half her age. She lay down on her yoga mat and turned on her pink iPod to listen to Led Zeppelin.

Dara Torres
Dara Torres competed in her first Olympics in 1984, years before some of her competitors at the USA National Swimming Championships were born. (AJ Mast - AP)

Two physical therapists, who work full time for Torres, bent over her and began the daily process of coaxing her body into swimming condition. Anne Tierney squeezed and rotated Torres's quadriceps. Steven Sierra pumped Torres's rib cage to force toxins out of her lungs.

"We're trying to take some years off of you," Tierney said.

"Yeah".Torres said. "I guess that might be good."

In her historic attempt to become the first swimmer older than 40 to compete in the Olympics, Torres has devoted herself to overcoming age. She hired a team of experts to facilitate her comeback: two physical therapists; two masseurs; a strength coach; a nanny; a sprinting coach; a head coach. She special-orders food from an organic company in Tampa.

The holistic approach yielded surreal results again Wednesday. Torres, a nine-time Olympic medal winner who first competed in the 1984 Games, won the 100-meter freestyle in 54.45 seconds, outracing favorites Dana Vollmer and Amanda Weir. Less than 15 months after launching her comeback with aspirations of making an Olympic relay team, Torres has emerged as a threat to qualify -- and possibly even medal -- in the individual freestyle sprints.

"Her comeback is just mind-boggling," said Michael Lohberg, Torres's coach in Coral Springs, Fla. "I don't think people can actually comprehend what's happening here. It hasn't happened before and it probably won't happen again. A 40-year-old who hasn't been swimming for years should never go this fast."

Torres announced her comeback to the swimming world Wednesday by dominating her first national competition in seven years. She jumped ahead immediately in the 100 free and then out-kicked the rest of the field down the stretch, finishing only .02 of a second behind her career-best time. Vollmer, 19, and Weir, 21, looked at each other quizzically at the end of the race, seemingly miffed at the 40-year-old mother who had stolen their event. Torres entered the final seeded fifth, and her finish earned a standing ovation.

"It's all a little crazy," Torres said. "This is happening so much quicker than I expected."

Torres won five medals, including two relay golds, at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. When she came home, she told friends that she would never swim again. She took jobs as a television reporter for ESPN, TNT and the Resort Sports Network. She started running and bicycling to stay in shape, forcing two knee surgeries. When the 2004 Olympics came on television, Torres hardly watched the swimming. She just didn't care, she said.

Torres became pregnant two years ago, and a doctor recommended swimming as a low-impact exercise to keep her in shape. Torres joined a local swim club near her Florida home, and her old addiction took hold. At five months pregnant, she wanted to race again. At eight months, she mentioned the 2008 Olympics. In April 2006, Torres swam and lifted weights on the same day she gave birth to her daughter, Tessa Graceh,"

Ever since, Torres has led a life so dedicated that even her elite swimming peers -- all of them conditioned for obsession -- can only watch and marvel. Her holistic approach to training, typical of European swimmers, strikes some U.S. coaches as excessive. She sleeps for at least nine hours each night and then wakes and drinks an all-natural, berry-flavored powder shake to supplement breakfast. A nanny cares for Tessa Grace from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., so Torres can train.

"It's hard to leave her," Torres said. "Sometimes I definitely feel selfish. But when I'm done in the afternoon, the rest of the day is just me and her. That's something to look forward to after a rough practice."

Torres weighs 10 pounds less than she did in 2000, and her primary training goal is "to feel light in the water." She spends almost 10 hours each week stretching with her two physical therapists, who help strengthen her lower back and pelvis to improve her rotation in the water. The Florida Panthers' strength and conditioning coach spends seven hours each week toning Torres's core muscles. One of her masseurs, Jonathan Gellert, visits Torres for frequent 90-minute sessions to help relieve muscle kinks and aid her recovery.

Torres swims only five days each week, and she rarely stays in the water for more than a few hours. She rests Thursdays and Sundays. Her training partners, including 50-meter backstroke world record holder Leila Vaziri, lose to Torres in sprinting races and then listen to her complain about aging.

"She's like a different species," said Vaziri, 22. "If I come back from a two-week break, I feel awful and unmotivated. Six years? That's crazy. Dara could probably make another four Olympics if she wanted to. She just doesn't get old."

Said Lohberg, Torres's head coach: "It's a combination of God-given talent, of being tough as nails, of having a complete understanding of what it takes. She has the will to accomplish anything."

And she has the staff, too. Fifty minutes before she jumped into the pool to swim in her first national meet since 2000, Torres sat in the corner of the natatorium surrounded by her experts. Two coaches advised her on strategy for the upcoming 100-meter race. Gellert, the masseur who had just flown in from Florida, unfolded a massage table and worked briefly on Torres's shoulders.

The two physical therapists ran their fingertips over Torres's back and shoulders, a method of touch intended to rid the body of excess energy and tension.

"Maybe this works," said Tierney, one of the physical therapists. "We're not really sure.

"I love the way it feels," Torres said, "and what can it hurt? You know I like to try everything."

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