Up to speed

The Baltimore Sun

What if someone told you that the fastest female swimmer in the United States isn't some fresh-faced prodigy just entering her prime? What if it weren't someone training six hours a day, eating, breathing and living the sport?

What if, instead, the fastest American happened to be a 41-year-old mom coming back from shoulder surgery? A 41-year-old mom who already retired once? What if, against logic and odds, you heard that she has been getting faster as she has grown older? What if she went into the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., next week with a chance to make her fifth Olympic team, but her first since 2000?

Would you be suspicious? Skeptical? Would you think she was doping or cheating?

Go ahead and be cynical. Dara Torres doesn't mind. You can say whatever you like. She doesn't feel that she has to prove anything to you, or anyone else. She's going to let the facts speak for themselves.

And right now the facts say she's one of the fastest freestyle swimmers in the world at 41, and every drug test she has taken has come back clean. Instead of waiting for accusations, she's one of the few athletes to take an active approach to drug testing. She has volunteered to give extra urine samples, has given blood to be frozen so that it can be tested for human growth hormone in the future and even volunteered her DNA if anyone wants it.

"To me, it's a compliment," Torres says of the whispers that she must be using performance-enhancing drugs. "I know I'm not taking anything. The people I work with know I'm not taking anything. My family and friends know I'm not taking anything. For them to say I am, it's almost a compliment. It means I'm doing something out of the ordinary."

9 Olympic medals

Although those who tune into the U.S. trials next week will probably do so hoping to get their first televised look at Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff - the two Baltimore-area swimmers expected to be the stars of the Beijing Olympics - Torres might have the most compelling story in Omaha. If she makes the team, it will be her fifth Olympics, the most of any American swimmer in history. She owns nine Olympic medals and swam in her first Olympics - the 1984 Games in Los Angeles - before Phelps and Hoff were born.

"In 2000, we would always joke that she was like a mom to me," Phelps says. "That was like seven years ago. To do what she's doing now is amazing. I can guarantee you won't see me swimming when I'm 40."

The most amazing aspect of Torres' story might be that it happened almost by accident.

Torres thought she was finished with competitive swimming after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when she won five medals after a six-year layoff. She had been swimming for so long that just the smell of chlorine made her feel that she needed to get away from the pool.

But two years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Tessa, swimming turned out to be the only way she felt comfortable staying in shape. A friend suggested that she join the Masters swim program at Coral Springs Swim Club in Florida, not far from her home in Parkland, Fla.

Torres showed up unannounced at the facility, not sure what to expect.

"I went into the office to talk to the secretary, and I said to her, 'I'd like to see what programs you have for swimming,' " Torres says. "I didn't tell her who I was. She said, 'What level do you think you can swim?' I said, 'Well, I don't know, either with the kids or the masters.' And she looks at me like I was nuts when I said the kids. She says: 'Tell you what, why don't you write down if you've swum in the past. Have you swum in the past?' "

It's hard for Torres to keep from smirking when she tells this story.

"Yes," Torres told the woman. "I've swam a little in the past."

Well, why don't you write down what you've done, the secretary said. I'll give it to the coach and he can decide whether you can be a part of the program.

"So I wrote down: four-time Olympian, nine Olympic medals, world championships, Pan Am games, all that," Torres says. "I folded it because I didn't want to embarrass her. I walked out, and I kind of smiled. Sure enough, a couple hours later, Michael [Lohberg] calls me, and he was laughing."

Lohberg, who coached Olympic swimmers in West Germany in the 1980s and now heads the program at Coral Springs, didn't know what to expect from Torres. At least at first. He figured she just wanted to stay fit during her pregnancy, and that was fine with him. Torres even swam and lifted weights the day she gave birth to Tessa.

"I knew when I was going to deliver, that I was going to go into the hospital that night," Torres says. "I was just sitting around waiting, and I was like, 'I'm kind of bored. I just want to go get a workout in before I do this.' I knew it was going to be a little while before I could start working out again."

Six weeks after Tessa was born in 2006, Lohberg asked Torres whether she might be interested in swimming at an event Coral Springs was hosting. He wanted to use her name for a little public relations to help promote it, but only if she was on board. Torres said she would try her best.

"She was apprehensive because she had given birth just a bit ago," Lohberg says. "She was relatively slow. She was just a young mother. She was nothing special, nothing to write home about."

Torres continued to swim, and her times slowly started dropping. She tweaked her stroke a bit, and in the Florida Gold Coast meet that year, she swam the 50-meter freestyle in 25.70 seconds, a remarkable time for someone who had been away from the sport that long.

"I sort of got bombarded by older masters swimmers that kept saying, 'You should swim; we want to see a 40-year-old in the Olympics,' " Torres says. "That sort of turned the light bulb on."

"She came back and said maybe," Lohberg says. "I said if that's what you feel, you've got to give it a shot. If you have that urge in you, you need to do it. It's almost irrelevant if you make it or not. You need to get it out of your system. The worst thing you could do would be to not follow through."

Before Lohberg agreed to get serious about training Torres, however, he wanted to sit down with her and have a serious conversation about steroids. Because even in 2000, on the pool deck in Sydney, there had been whispers about her. Lohberg has seen the devastating effects of steroids up close, coaching against the East Germans in the 1980s. He would not coach someone who used performance enhancers.

"I'm a pretty straightforward guy," Lohberg says. "We met for lunch, and she laid our her plan for training, and I said: 'Dara, I need to know one thing first. There were rumors in Sydney. I usually don't care for that stuff. But if you're going to be my protege, I need to know.' And she said, 'Michael, not now, not ever.' Knowing her better now, I know that's the last thing she would do."

Murmurs continue

Torres' willingness to get tested frequently hasn't quelled the murmurs, especially after she broke her own American record last year at the U.S. Championships in Indianapolis in the 50-meter freestyle (24.53), a record she set in 2000.

That performance seemed to spark a new wave of criticism, especially from a few swimming bloggers online. A few people can't fathom how a 41-year-old mother - especially one who is open about training fewer hours in the pool than her competitors, hoping to reduce the wear and tear on her body - can be faster now than she was 20 years ago unless she's doping.

How does she do it? How is it possible that Torres is able to continue to get faster at an age when everyone else in the sport is slowing down? She credits modern training techniques and the people working with her. After every workout, Torres does an hour of stretching and deep tissue massage with two specialists.

"I think if you physically look at me, and the way I am in the weight room, I'm stronger now than I have ever been in my life and more fit than I've ever been in my life," Torres says. "But my recovery takes much longer than it did when I was in my 20s and 30s."

Emotional difficulties

It can be even tougher some nights when Tessa wakes up at 4:30 a.m., crying or sick, and Torres has to put swimming second behind being a mom. And it has been difficult, emotionally, to leave Tessa with a nanny every day while she works out.

"As I started to get more into it and started to swim faster, I started to realize it's more like a job for me," she says. "And there's a lot of working moms out there who are doing what I'm doing but in their own profession. I still have guilt every now and then, but I don't feel as guilt-ridden as I did at first."

If Torres makes the Olympic team, she'll be a long shot to win a medal. That hardly matters for Lohberg. He thinks it's the journey that is impelling Torres.

"I think [making the team] would give her great satisfaction," Lohberg says. "It would be the last chapter in an awesome book or the last scene in a movie where the hero rides into the sunset.

"If for some reason it doesn't happen, there will be no devastation or regrets. Let's say she false starts or who knows what. Until you touch the wall, nothing is for sure. The journey is awesome."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

Dara Torres

Born -- April 15, 1967, in Los Angeles

Family -- Daughter, Tessa, 2

Olympics -- Competed in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 2000 Games. Has won nine medals, including four golds.

Of note -- Trying to become first U.S. swimmer to compete in five Olympics. ... Holds American record in 50-meter freestyle (24.53), set last year at the U.S. Championships in Indianapolis. She originally set the record in 2000.

Countdown to Beijing

In the weeks leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, The Sun will bring you stories about local athletes you know, such as swimming superstars Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff. We'll also introduce you to some competitors you might not know of, or who are trying to make a comeback, as with today's feature on swimmer Dara Torres. As we count down to Beijing, look to The Sun for your local Olympic coverage.

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