Monday, July 07, 2008

You are never too old to go back in the pool

If you ever thought that having kids or getting older was a reason to stop, read this:

By Christine Brennan, USA TODAY
OMAHA — The last time Dara Torres unretired and went to the Olympics, she was sitting on a folding chair in the press tent at the 2000 Sydney Games. Her last race had just ended. Her astonishing five medals had been won. She was waiting to be interviewed by reporters, then she had a date with the drug testers.
It was then, sitting alone during a rare quiet moment during those Games, that Torres, the star of the show at age 33, began fighting back tears.
"I can't believe it's already over," she said. "It was so much fun, but now it's done. It goes so quickly."
There may be no one in the history of swimming who loves the venue of the Olympics as much as Dara Torres does. Eight years ago, while other swimmers celebrated when their races were done, Torres lamented the passing of time. While the rest were thrilled to never have to swim another lap, Torres was crestfallen that her Olympic experience was over.
It would take nearly eight years for Torres to find this out, but she was going to be given one more chance to swim at the Olympic Games. She would unretire once more after having a daughter, and she would train, and she would swim faster than she ever had before, and she would make another U.S. Olympic team — not once, but twice, with two relays potentially thrown in for good measure.
What a magical Fourth of July weekend this was for Torres. On Independence Day, the 41-year-old mother with a 2-year-old daughter, hoping to finish somewhere in the top six in the 100 freestyle to qualify for the 4x100-meter free relay, won the event in a time of 53.78 seconds, upsetting U.S. recordholder Natalie Coughlin.
Then, Sunday, she swam faster than any U.S. woman has ever swum in winning the 50 freestyle in 24.25 seconds. In second place was Jessica Hardy. She is a stunning 20 years younger than Torres.
"I think I've shown that you don't want to put an age limit on your dreams," an ecstatic Torres said minutes after pulling herself out of the pool.
Torres is the story of the hour in the U.S. Olympic world — and perhaps about to become the story of the summer, and not just in sports. Along press row, someone called her "Hillary in the pool," and that might not be far off. She certainly is doing things that once would have been unthinkable for a female athlete.
"You see people who are late bloomers, but she's just a continual bloomer," said Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a teammate of Torres at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. "What I love about her accomplishment is it really stretches your idea of what people are capable of doing. When I think of Dara's career, I think of someone who is adapting with the state of knowledge (in swimming training). It's a new thinking about athletes and what they are capable of."
Of course, because this is the Steroid Era in sports, and because some Olympic sports deserve a lifetime achievement award in this area, including hers, Torres is dealing with her share of broad-brush questions about how she is accomplishing such remarkable feats.
But unlike Marion Jones and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and all the other scoundrels of our time, Torres is undergoing not only urinalysis, but also blood testing in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency pilot program for which she volunteered. Torres said she has had both her urine and blood tested 12 to 15 times since March. That's a lot of drug testing, more than Bonds and Clemens likely had in their entire careers combined.
But the cacophony will continue to build — that she must be on something to swim faster at 41 than she did at 21. So I contacted U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief executive officer Travis Tygart to ask him how much faith we can put in the pilot testing program that Torres and 11 other U.S. Olympians are undergoing.
"Any athlete's involvement in the pilot program proves they are committed to whatever it takes to compete clean," said Tygart, who is the nation's toughest sports doping cop. "You'd have to be a fool to be dirty and be in this program."
That won't end the conversation about Torres and drugs, but she asked to be in this program, and that's very important to keep in mind.

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