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By Luke Cyphers
Dara Torres once wrote a book called Age Is Just a Number. Nowadays, though, the feel-good story of the 2008 Olympics admits to, well, feeling her age. Torres won two silver medals as a 41-year-old mother and swimmer in Beijing, but she harbors no illusions about repeating the feat four years later. "You have to be realistic," Torres said. "I am 45 years old. I'm that much closer to being 50, and my body just can't recover the way it used to."
Her goal was gold in 2008. In 2012? "I don't feel like I have anything else to prove going into these Olympic Games," said the 12-time medalist. "It's not about medals. I have enough."
So why does she put herself through grueling training five days a week in the hopes of making her sixth — and she swears last — U.S. Olympic team? Because, at her best, she's still one of the fastest sprinters in the world. She placed second in the 50-meter freestyle (25.24 seconds) at the winter nationals. Last month, she swam a solid 25.36 seconds in the prelims of the Indianapolis Grand Prix, but faded to 25.47 in the final to finish sixth. She'll need to place within the top two at the Olympic trials in Omaha in June to make it to London.
Dara Torres says it is harder for her body to recover compared to when she competed in the 2008 Olympics. "If I had to just swim the race once, I don't think it would even be an issue making the team," she said. "But I have to swim it three times, and having my body recover for those three races is my issue."
Torres embraces the actuarial challenge of capping an Olympic career 28 years after it began in 1984, even as her world has changed and her body has creaked. Her longtime coach, Michael Lohberg, died of a rare blood disorder in 2011. One of Lohberg's assistants, Bruno Darzi, now coaches her. Her daughter Tessa is now 6. And her left knee required surgery and more than a year to rehab. Through it all, "I still have a passion for the sport of swimming," she said.
But there's also a sense of obligation to the public following she has built through her success and frequent television appearances. (The former telecommunications major and frequent morning-show guest announced her comeback on "Live with Regis & Kelly.") "I have so many people come up to me and say I'm inspiring them to do things that they thought they couldn't do because they were too old, or that they put off because they couldn't find a balance in their life to do it," Torres said.
Keep reading for more on Dara Torres' Olympic past and present.
Beyond that, there are obligations to her private-sector interests. Torres' performance in Beijing put her among the elite of Olympian endorsers. She has 11 corporate sponsors, including McDonald's Champions of Play program, which is putting her front and center whether she makes the team or not.
"When I found out McDonald's was trying to spread the word about the power of play for kids and families around the world, and encourage them to take a balanced approach to nutrition and getting active, I was all on board," she said.
Fitting in training with corporate obligations is a job in itself. Torres estimates she has done well over two dozen appearances and shoots during the past year.
"I can't count them on both my hands and toes," she said. "I'm very lucky that I have sponsors who understand that swimming is first and foremost right now, that my goal is to try to make the Olympic team."
They work around her training schedule, usually coming to her South Florida home on Thursdays, one of her weekly days off, allowing her to avoid travel. They've also supported her despite the raised eyebrows that followed her ahead of the 2008 Games. Torres has never failed a drug test, but the combination of her age, performance level and the degree of cheating in modern sports inspired doping questions from the media, questions that are sure to come up again if she qualifies for London.
Torres said her sponsors put no stock in such speculation. "They never really ask anything about it," Torres said. "I think they know me as a person and believe in me. I think I've gone well beyond what's required in drug testing, and in putting myself out there as an open book."
Torres points out that during her year away from competition after knee surgery, she stayed in the active athlete pool, which subjected her to random tests.
"I could have very easily gone into the retired pool and not gotten tested for a year," she said. "I wasn't sure whether I was going to swim or not after my knee surgery, but I stayed in the drug-testing pool for that year, and they showed up at all hours to come and test me. I did it so people wouldn't say, 'What was she doing in her year off?'"
One thing she won't dispute: Age has crept up on her heading into this Olympiad, and will be the biggest factor in whether she qualifies.
"Right now, my knee's doing OK," she said. "I have pain every now and then. But with all the injuries that I had in '08 with my shoulders, with my knee and everything else that was going on, I almost wish I was dealing with that now rather than dealing with the fact of age.
"[With injuries] you deal with it and get over it," she said. "But your age just keeps getting older."
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