Dara on Deck–A New View of Swimming: An Interview with Four-Time Olympian Dara Torres

By Nicole Leffer

IT has been four years since Dara Torres made a high profile comeback to the sport of swimming after taking seven years of retirement.

It has been four years since Dara Torres made history at 33 as the oldest female US Swimmer in Olympic history and the first female US swimmer to compete in four Olympic Games.

It has been four years since Dara Torres stood up to prove to the world that there are no limits to potential and you can do anything you put your mind to, winning her fifth through ninth Olympic medals and setting American records in the 100 fly and 50 free in the process – records that still stand today.

Now, in 2004, Dara Torres will again be a part of Olympic history, this time outside of the pool as a correspondent for NBC.

Swiminfo.com caught up with Dara just before last week’s US Olympic Trials to talk about her career, her Olympic experiences and what it all means now.

Swiminfo: Dara, you went from being the youngest member of the US National Team and a national record-holder to the oldest member and a national record-holder. Describe that journey for us.

Dara Torres: Well you know what? – obviously, it was a long one. When I was younger, swimming just came so easy to me that it was a lot of fun; I didn’t really have to work too hard at the beginning. And then I started to mature, and as my body changed I started to realize I wasn’t as fast as I used to be when I was younger, so I had to really put the hours in and start practicing hard. I never in my wildest dreams really thought that I’d be swimming at the age of 33. I mean, it was pretty much unheard of in the swimming world you know, usually they say women peak in their late teens or early 20’s. It was something that kind of amazed me also — that I was able to accomplish what I did. Yet, looking back on it, I realize that it really is just a myth and that you can do things if you really put your mind to it and it doesn’t matter what age you are.

Swiminfo: Speaking of the age issue, even though you’re not swimming at this year’s Trials, many people think that if you had trained you would have made the Olympic team again. What do you think is the age limit for a potential Olympic swimmer?

Torres: With the age, you know what? — I don’t know. You know, right now I’m 37 and could I have made this year’s team? Possibly, maybe on a relay or the 50, but you know everyone’s built differently, everyone has in their own head what they want to do differently. It’s just a matter of, I think, heart and will and if your body can still hang in there and do it. For me I’m one of those people who probably looks a little younger than I actually am, and probably acts a little younger than I actually am, so I’m lucky that I’m able to do these things at an older age. But I don’t like to put age limitations on what one person can do or can’t do because it’s different for everyone. I don’t want to give a specific number, but I think the myth of only being able to compete at a certain age is pretty much gone now.

Swiminfo: In 1984 you were 17 at Trials and in 2000 you were 33. How did your mindset and emotional state change going into Trials?

Torres: It’s like night and day. The thing that wasn’t different was that I was definitely nervous. Nervous when I was younger and nervous when I was older. But the nervousness was a little different and I put that energy into different things. At 17 I was nervous because I was worried about who I was swimming against and how fast they had gone that year. At 33 I was nervous just because I couldn’t believe I was there doing this again for a fourth time. The way I looked at it differently at 33 was that I think the maturity kind of kicked in and I realized ‘you know what? — I’ve done everything I possibly could up to this point. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, and I’m just going to go out there and have fun.’ I didn’t really have that mindset when I was 17. I think when you’re younger you put a little more pressure on yourself.

Swiminfo: So what did you do to prepare mentally for a meet like Trials?

Torres: Well, you know, there’s not a lot. I feel like if you do all the work in the pool, you don’t really have to have something. Me personally, I’m not really one to visualize or do that kind of stuff. If I feel like things have been going well in training and I’ve done everything I could, there’s nothing really more to mentally prepare for it. In fact, my coach Richard Quick would never come up and give me these long talks. He would just say “are you ready?” and I’d say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ which 99.9% of the time would be ‘yes,’ and he’d say ‘okay, let’s get ready to rock and roll.’ And then he’d walk away and that was my pep talk.
I guess when you’re older you just need to realize that there are other things in life that are important besides an Olympic Games and I was really just there to have fun and see what I could do and what I was made out of.

Swiminfo: What do you think has been your key to success? You have swum at four Olympic Trials, made the Olympic team at each one. What has been that one factor that’s been so special for you?

Torres: I think the biggest thing is more so in the last Olympics–it is that I was so much more mature in those Olympics because there had been eight years from my last one to my third one. I think the biggest thing that I got out of it was that I was able to share my experiences, both good and bad, with everyone. Hopefully, because of that, people can take what they want and grow from that, or if they have similar experiences, learn from what I learned, or even be willing to talk to me if they have things going on that I’ve been through.

Swiminfo: What is your most vivid memory from any of the Trials you’ve swam at?

Torres: Ummmmm, uhhhh… haha. … I remember my first Trials… I can’t say this is a good vivid memory… but I remember my first Trials I took some cough medicine because I was sick. Mark Schubert was my coach at the time– he probably doesn’t even remember this because it was so long ago– but I wasn’t really thinking. I was 17 years old, and back then the drug testing wasn’t as prominent as it is now and the drug list wasn’t as prominent as it is now. Anyways, I took some cough medicine that I wasn’t supposed to take and Marco, one of the trainers, was telling me to like gag so I would throw it up because it was on the banned drug list or something like that. I just remember like freaking out that I had done that before I swam.
I also remember… this is weird memories to have of Trials… but at the ’84 Olympic Trials and the Olympics the drug testing area was serving alcohol–like beer and stuff–for people to drink so they would be able to go the bathroom fast.
I think it might be bad that I don’t have like “oh yah this medal or that medal or this swim I have vivid memories” but I just remember these kind of bizarre things.
I just remember the swimmers getting drunk, and I was like “oh my God.”

Swiminfo: And you were young then for them to be doing that…

Torres: Yah, and I mean obviously they weren’t going to be serving me beer, but the older guys were like chugging the beers and I was like “dannnnng, this is drug testing?!”

Swiminfo: That’s hilarious. I’ve never heard that one before.

Torres: Yah, well it happened. Trust me.

Swiminfo: In 2000, after your seven years off when you came back and swam faster than ever, what was your motivation and what was the biggest obstacle that you faced in your comeback?

Torres: The biggest obstacle was the stroke change because the technique had changed so much in seven years that Richard was still teaching me the stroke during the Olympic Games. I was so frustrated. We’re in the warm-up pool and he’s still on my case: ‘You’re not doing this right, you gotta do that.’ You’d think after a year I’d have it. That was really frustrating.

Motivation…It was self-motivation. My heart. I wanted it so badly and I missed swimming so much that I just wanted to do everything I could to be the best I could be, and be able to leave the Games, or the Trials, at least, saying I gave it my all. I think I even shocked myself with how much in my heart I really wanted this.

Swiminfo: Did your performances match your expectations in 2000?

Torres: They actually went beyond. My coach and I, when we originally talked about it, had talked about being an alternate on a relay on the Olympic team. The next thing I know I’m swimming five events and winning five medals, it wasn’t something I was really expecting to do.

Swiminfo: Did you get much pressure from coaches or other athletes or people in media and how did that affect you?

Torres: Yah, you know, at the beginning people would talk behind my back: ‘oh she’s doing this for the wrong reasons, she wants to do it for publicity.’ I’m like ‘you know, nobody knows what’s going on inside of me.’ I didn’t want to do it for publicity. I was already on those Tae-Bo infomercials day and night, and the last thing I needed was publicity. So it was talk behind my back, and I just realized that you’ve got to ignore that kind of stuff.

The media was on my case a little bit because “how could someone who took seven years off be able to do what she did? She must be taking drugs” type thing and I had to deal with that pressure. And you know, it just kind of comes with the territory, but if I know in my heart that I’m doing everything the right way, and I’m doing it for reasons that are for me and not for anybody else, then my conscience is clean and I don’t have to worry about it. I had to kind of work through that a little bit you know, at first. At first it was kind of tough, but then it was like ‘oh forget everyone else.’ I’m going to go out there to do what I’m out there to do, and I’m doing it for myself, not for anyone else, and if they want to talk about me, or talk bad about me, that’s fine, let them. I know in my heart what I’ve been doing.

Swiminfo: In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently about how you handled that pressure?

Torres: No, you know, because I think it came on pretty quickly and I dealt with it pretty quickly and moved on and just ignored it towards the end when it was really a lot of pressure about that kind of stuff.

Swiminfo: When Trials and the Olympics were over did you feel relief or sadness? What was your emotional state?

Torres: Trials it was exhaustion because I was not used to swimming semifinals. I had not done that in my life, so that was total exhaustion when I got done.

The Olympic Games: it was emotional exhaustion, I just was really down that it was over. I mean, I cried every time I was on the awards stand, but the last relay in particular, my last event, I really took it bad — to the point where I went to drug testing and I had to get out of there and just go cry on someone’s shoulder. I found my coach, Richard, and he just kind of held me as I just lost it.

Swiminfo: How does it feel now to know that you are going to Trials as a spectator rather than a participant this year?

Torres: I think it’s going to be so much fun to watch, but I think it’s going to tug at my heart a little bit, because every Trials I’ve been to I’ve competed in. It’s going to be kind of strange not being a part of it in that way, but I’m very thankful that I am a part of it in another way, you know another aspect, working the Olympic Games, stuff like that. I’m just so glad that I get to be a part of it. It will be tough though. I’m sure it will gnaw at me a little bit. I mean, I was at the Janet Evans meet and it was gnawing at me–I saw the 50 and the 100 free and then the 100fly, I was like “oh, it would be so nice to get back in there and compete. Not train for it, but just compete in the event.”

Swiminfo:Do you have any advice for swimmers competing in their first Trials this year?

Torres: Well you know, it’s like the way I looked at it going into the Olympic Games, if you’ve done everything you possibly could up to that point, just go out there and have fun, fate will dictate what’s going to happen. Don’t worry about who you’re swimming against, you never know what’s going to happen on that given day. You could have a world record swimmer swimming next to you and they just might have an off day, and the next thing you know somebody who wasn’t supposed to make the Olympic team makes the Olympic team.

Swiminfo: Do you have any big predictions for this year’s Trials?

Torres: You know, I don’t really make predictions. I’m just so excited to see what happens though. I’m really excited to see who makes the team. There are always, always surprises. There are always people who make the team that you’ve never even heard of. It’s just so cool to see their reaction when they touch the wall and they see they’ve gotten first or second and nobody’s ever heard of them before. I love that. Those are the races I really love. It will be fun, I can’t wait to go and watch.

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