Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Can Dara Torres swim in her fifth Olympics?

Olympic Trials June 29-July 6 will tell the tale for Torres, 41

Express Staff Writer

Dara Torres signs an autograph during her May 1 appearance at Zenergy at Thunder Spring. Photo by Jeff Cordes

Freestyle sprinter Dara Torres was 17 in 1984 when she competed in her first Olympic Summer Games in her hometown of Los Angeles. That's when Torres won her first of nine Olympic swimming medals, in 400-meter freestyle relay.

That was nearly 25 years ago. Torres said recently, "1984? It was so long ago I have to see pictures to remember. You're 17 years old, and you're literally bouncing off walls."

If you've been watching NBA Hardwood Classics on TV, you remember 1984 as the year Larry Bird's Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in seven magnificent games—back when NBA basketball was at its peak.

Can you imagine Bird and Magic lacing it up in 2008 and going head-to-head with youngsters like Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant? Not really. But that's essentially what Dara Torres is attempting to achieve this summer—a comeback for the ages, swimming in the same pool as the world's best.

Torres, whose family has been coming to Sun Valley for nearly 30 years, and whose mother lives here, is trying to accomplish something that has never been done before.

She was the first American to swim in four Olympics, in 2000 at age 33. And she's still the fastest female swimmer in America, a mother now at 41.

Two years after giving birth to her daughter and now in her second major comeback from retirement, Torres is exploring the kind of boundaries female athletes have never crossed.

She will attempt to make an unprecedented fifth U.S. Olympic team when the 2008 Olympic Trials are held June 29 through July 6 at Omaha, Neb.

During a public appearance Thursday, May 1 at Zenergy at Thunder Springs located north of Ketchum, Torres told a rapt crowd of 80 onlookers gathered around the indoor pool, "I'm the type who puts a positive spin on everything. Yes, I'm 41 and no one has ever done this before. But you don't put an age limit on your dreams."

She was a medal-winning Olympian in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 2000. Torres said, "I thought my career was over at 25 in 1992. I got the itch again in 2000 at age 33. When I won five medals in 2000, I did okay.

"But I will never forget a remark made to me following the finish of my last event that year in Sydney. A reporter asked, will you do this again in eight years when you are 41?

"I thought to myself, that's about the lamest question I've ever heard. But I love working out, and I've realized competitiveness doesn't do away. And at 41, I think you appreciate the experience even more."

Fitness and striving, at 41

Many of the fitness enthusiasts in the Zenergy audience wanted to learn about Torres' experience of training to compete at such a high level, at an age usually reserved for Masters-level competition only.

She was three months pregnant in 2005 when Torres started swimming for exercise in the 50-meter pool at Coral Springs Aquatic Complex in Florida, where the swim club of six-time Olympic swim coach Michael Lohberg is based.

You can't miss her statuesque 6-0 frame, but Torres took her usual low-key approach. She said, "I remember someone asking me, have you ever swum before? Yeah, a little, I said. So I started swimming on the Masters team. It was great and laid back, middle-aged men racing me."

Her daughter Tessa Grace was born in April 2006. Torres took her exhilaration over the birth to a different level. With her newborn on her chest, she asked her doctor, "When can I start working out? It took a week-and-a-half to get into the weight room and six weeks, just like the doctor said, to start swimming again."

She started training an hour a day, three days a week. That summer while she was still breast-feeding, Torres set two World Masters swim sprint records at the Fort Lauderdale Annual Masters Challenge. The times were comparable to those of the world's young elite.

To take the next step toward the 2008 Olympics, Torres needed a coach. She approached Lohberg of Coral Springs, who had been known for many years as a strong opponent of performance-enhancing drugs. He refuses to coach swimmers who use them.

"The downside of competing at this level at my age is the many accusations that have been made about drug use. They have said, she must be cheating," said Torres about the implications against her that started at the 2000 Olympics, where she tested negative.

She added, "I decided to take a pro-active approach," which includes frequent visits to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in Colorado Springs where her blood and urine are tested. Having made it clear to Lohberg that she has never used performance-enhancing drugs, the coach took her on.

Torres has always exercised, almost compulsively, but she embraced a decidedly modern approach to training when she hired Andy O'Brien as her strength and conditioning coach in November 2006. O'Brien is on the staff of the NHL Florida Panthers team.

"Andy looked at our strokes in the water and came to the conclusion that swimmers use a lot of different muscles at once. He figured the more efficient we became in the weight room, the more efficient we would become in the pool," said Torres, who appreciated that it was a kind of fluid training, similar to fluid swimming.

O'Brien started Torres on the Swiss balance ball and resistance cables and also emphasized proper nutrition, preferring protein. She said, "90% of the workouts use the core. There are no heavy weights and a lot of different movements. It's very challenging."

She said, "I come from the Old School in many respects.

"Back then it was Spaghetti Night before a competition and pancakes in the morning—always carbohydrates. But Andy is very much into protein. In the weight room, it always used to be heavy weights. The heavier you lift in the weight room, the faster you'll be. That was the thinking. But at 150 pounds I'm now 12 to 15 pounds lighter than I was in 2000, and I'm swimming faster."

Torres, now longer and leaner in her muscles, also credits her improved fitness to the mashing she takes from two stretching trainers. "I feel exhausted when I get done with my stretching. And I have three massages a week," she said.

But the biggest thing she has learned is the vital importance of recovery time to an elite athlete of 41. Her workouts are short, difficult and intense. She takes longer to recover. She said, "Recovery is probably the biggest word in my vocabulary.

"If I did nine workouts a week when I was 33 in 2000, now I do five. Monday it's strictly aerobic stuff, long sets. Tuesday it's weight training and in the pool. Wednesday it's recovery and Thursday I'm off. Friday, it's sprints. Saturday it's quality all-out swimming.

"It's amazing what your body can do if you give it rest."

She's a perfectionist and puts everything into what she does. About nine months after starting to work with O'Brien, in July 2007, her strength and reaction time off the blocks had improved to such a point that she won two U.S. national titles in her best events, the 50-meter and 100m sprints. Her 50m time of 24.53 was her best ever.

"I still have nerves before a competition. Those nerves get the adrenaline going. But when I'm in the starting block, the nerves go away," she said.

During her May 1 visit to Zenergy, Torres appeared with two other promising Coral Springs Swim Club competitors who are climbing the ladder—native New Yorker Leila Vaziri, 23, and Julie Anne Stupp, 22, from St. Louis, Mo.

Neither was born when Torres won her first Olympic gold medal back in 1984.

Having trained with Torres in Sun Valley in April and early May, Vaziri and Stupp are among 15 post-college graduates training at coach Lohberg's Coral Springs Swim Club. Even at their young ages, Vaziri and Stupp are heading for their third Olympic Trials. Both are seeking their first Olympic Games berths.

Commenting on Torres' overall fitness and training regimen, Vaziri said, "Her base must be unbelievable. And the intensity she brings to each session is unbelievable as well." Vaziri added about the spotlight Torres has become accustomed to, "Dara is on a whole another level as far as getting attention."

Vaziri, a backstroke specialist who graduated from the University of Indiana in 2007, set a world record when she won the gold medal in the 50m backstroke during the semi-finals of the 2007 World Championships. She captured the U.S. national 100m backstroke title in 2006.

Stupp, a 5-10 All-American swimmer at Auburn University, first competed in the Olympic Trials in the ninth grade. Breast stroke and IM are her specialties. As a member of Team USA in the 2008 FINA Short Course World Championships at Manchester, England April 9-13, Stupp finished seventh in the women's 400m IM final. It was her first international competition.

Torres is realistic about working with the youngsters in what is primarily a very individual sport. She said, "I always try to be there for the young kids if I can, but I'm also there to do my thing. Sure, we race against each other in workouts. But even though you're competitors with the others, you keep it in the pool."

Dara told the Zenergy crowd she usually visits Sun Valley twice a year during the summer, and once in the winter for skiing and boarding.

In fact, the Idaho Mountain Express published a fun article 12 years ago entitled "Take your mark for the Olympic dog paddle," that involved Torres racing an Australian Shepherd in a Heatherlands pool during one of her summer visits.

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