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Talent Appears Timeless

At 41, U.S. swimmer Dara Torres draws curiosity and scrutiny as she sets sights on gold at Games.

August 04, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Cover girl, swimmer, mother, icon to a fast-graying, 40-something set and proud owner of abs that make Brandi Chastain's look, well, practically ordinary.

All labels firmly fixed to Dara Torres. Well, the last one really isn't a label but think about how Chastain, an icon in her own right, looked so chiseled when she whipped off her shirt after the Women's World Cup in 1999 and now seeing Torres on the pool deck has everyone searching for new descriptions.

But what about just one more?

Olympic gold medalist at age 41?

Her medal chances in Beijing are almost lost in the sound and furor regarding her remarkable improvements at an age when most folks' fast-twitch muscles are barely twitching, let alone fast. Torres fielded more questions about drug testing and suspicion about her jaw-dropping results at a recent media gathering at Stanford University than ones about her opponents.

An open-book philosophy -- a willingness to be drug-tested anywhere at any time -- hasn't prevented it from becoming open season on Torres. She is among the most accessible of athletes, either via telephone or e-mail, and said she understood the current climate in a post-BALCO, post-Marion Jones era.

To a point.

"I totally understand," she said. "But if you explain it to people and you're out there, letting them do whatever test possible to prove you're clean that other athletes have not done, you should be given the benefit of the doubt."

Finally, there were questions about the competition.

Oh, that.

Gary Hall Jr., two-time defending Olympic champion in the 50-meter freestyle, thinks Torres has a legitimate shot of climbing to the top of the medal podium in that event despite the fact her most-recent Olympic appearance was in 2000. Hall, who just fell short in his attempt for a fourth Olympic team, is familiar with these well-spaced comebacks.

"Dara Torres can win it," he said in a telephone interview. "She doesn't have to get that much faster. Everyone knows how tough Dara Torres is mentally."

The world record-holder is Libby Lenton Trickett, who went 23.97 seconds in March in Sydney at the Australian Olympic trials, taking 0.12 off the existing mark. The third-fastest time in the world (24.13, at Santa Clara in May) this year belongs to the teenager Cate Campbell, who was born the year Torres competed in her third Olympics, in 1992.

Between those two Aussies is veteran Marleen Veldhuis of the Netherlands at 24.09.

But Torres has been dropping time quickly, lowering her American record at the trials in Omaha, going 24.25, in winning the 50. In comparison, she won the 50 last year at nationals in Indianapolis in 24.53. More historical perspective: Torres broke Jill Sterkel's American record in 1983, going 25.69.

Twenty-five years later, Torres was talking about what it would take to beat Trickett, who, incidentally, was born in 1985.

"I need an awesome start, an awesome swim and an awesome finish," Torres said. "No mistakes. I had some mistakes in Omaha, so I know there's room for improvement, which is great.

"I get very upset if I have a bad start or if something's not right in my race. My coach said, 'Look at it this way, you can go that much faster if you can improve on your mistakes.' My start was very slow."

This was before her coach Michael Lohberg -- instead of joining Torres in Singapore for training camp -- was transported to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to be treated for a rare blood disorder, aplastic anemia. In a brief telephone interview, a distraught Torres said they knew something was wrong when he could not walk more than 10 meters at the U.S. trials in Omaha without stopping.

Not being on hand to support him was taking a toll on Torres last week even before the team departed for Singapore. Undoubtedly, she will have plenty of support from the tightly knit band of U.S. swimmers and coaches, including USA Swimming's head team coach, Mark Schubert.

Schubert has known her since she was 13, and coached her when she moved to Mission Viejo for her junior year of high school. He thinks she will end up being the trendsetter, not the exception.

"She's been a very special talent since she was 14 years old and she's never been out of shape a day in her life," Schubert said. "Just because there's a lot of fat and out-of-shape 41-years-olds, that doesn't mean that's how it has to be.

"I have a feeling over the next 100 years, there's going to be a lot of 41-years-olds making Olympic teams."

Torres, rather than hiding, almost runs toward 41. Or perhaps it should be said, swims toward 41. That will be her legacy.

"I don't mind it at all," she said. "I've had some people come up to me and say, 'I wish they'd stop saying you're 41.' I'd say, 'There's nothing wrong with that.' If anything, it makes me proud I'm an age where I can do this."



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Vintage athletes

A look at a few of the major accomplishments over the last quarter-century by athletes who were past 40:

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