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She's propelled by dad's memory

BEIJING 2008 : COMMENTARY

August 16, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING — Dara Torres was born April 15, 1967, in Los Angeles, two weeks before a blessed event was held in Las Vegas at the Aladdin Hotel: the wedding of Elvis Presley and his bride, Priscilla.

Her father, Eddie Torres, bought the Aladdin (in a partnership with Wayne Newton) 13 years later. By then his daughter the swim prodigy was a fixture in the pools of Beverly Hills, including the one in the Torres family's sprawling 10-bath home there.

He meant a great deal to Dara way back then. He still does.

She invokes his name on her website to this day, on the verge of unprecedented Olympic greatness, saying, "I look deep inside my soul and wonder what my father would tell me."

She thought of her dad in Omaha last month when she, at 41, became our oldest swimming Olympian ever.

"I was feeling him with me in that race," Dara said, adding that she later tried to avert her gaze because those drops spilling down her cheeks were not from the pool.

And the nerves are still there for her, even at this age.

When she emerged from Friday night's prelims at the Water Cube in the 50-meter freestyle, the first test in Beijing for this queen mother of the U.S. swim team, Torres grinned sheepishly and confessed, "I had knots in my stomach all morning."

The outside of her stomach you've seen. It has been photographed and remarked upon for weeks now, this Greek-goddess midsection of hers, a torso to die for with abs that ripple like the armor of Batman's suit.

A 16-year-old, Cate Campbell, actually swam faster than Torres, who was winning medals at Olympic Games before the young Australian was born.

"She's an amazing woman," Campbell said. "I'm not going to be swimming when I'm 40. No way."

Torres, who won her semifinal heat today in 24.27 seconds, was just like her once.

She was a teenager and the 1984 Olympics were being staged in her hometown. Dara already had been a competitive swimmer at 8, broken a world record at 14 and made a name for herself at Westlake School for Girls, an academy established in 1904 with the school credo Possunt Quia Posse Videntur.

("They can because they think they can.")

A lot of accomplished individuals have come out of the now co-educational school, renamed Harvard-Westlake, among them astronaut Sally Ride and actors Shirley Temple, Candice Bergen and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

But back in 1984, it was young Dara Torres who caught the world's eye by winning a gold medal at a very tender age.

She had skill, dedication and a lean body that would ultimately grow to be 6 feet tall. She also had something that she kept well hidden:

Stage fright.

"I freaked out," Torres admitted of her original Olympic experience, when her first leg of the U.S. team's 400 freestyle relay was so poor it nearly led to her being replaced.

She summoned her courage and came through in the end, joining Jenna Johnson, Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead to win the gold medal by nearly a full second over the runners-up from Holland.

Her dad was so proud.

By then he was a major player in Vegas, having owned a piece of the Riviera and the Fremont casinos, buying the Aladdin (which is now Planet Hollywood), taking over the Thunderbird and turning it into the El Rancho, booking the biggest guests and acts, being on a first-name basis with the highest rollers and hottest stars.

Eddie was married then to Marylu Kauder, a former fashion model, who remains Dara's most enthusiastic fan in the stands. It was a blow to Dara when her father was stricken in 2000 with the colon cancer that ultimately killed him. She showed up to honor him not long ago at a function at a cancer center and hospital at USC.

He came to Sydney, Australia, to watch her that year when Dara took a bronze medal in both the 50 and 100 freestyles.

That figured to be the end of her era as an Olympian, but she fooled everybody -- including, without meaning to, her dad.

"I hadn't told him I was making a comeback after I'd already started," she said, which is why the characteristically smiling and upbeat athlete became a little emotional in Omaha after qualifying to be the oldest Olympic swimmer in U.S. history.

A parent herself now, she desires the same bond that she had with her own.

Torres gave birth to a daughter, Tessa, on the same day Katie Holmes had Suri Cruise, an event that captured a tad more of the world's attention. Actress Brooke Shields had a baby on that date as well.

Going for broke was a gamble Torres felt she had to take, something her father, as a hotel and casino owner, could appreciate. She called him the "most influential person" in her life and praised his dedication and hard work, a couple of attributes that explain her own presence in Beijing.

She retains a childlike enthusiasm, describing these Olympics thus far as "awesome in every way" and calling the Water Cube "the most awesome facility I've ever been in."

Splashing in a pool is bringing out the kid in her.

No one at 41 should be expected to go for gold medals, or ones of any other hue.

Dara Torres can. She can because she thinks she can.

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