Swimming sensation Dara  G. Torres opens up about  the victories and controversies of her sport.
Swimming sensation Dara G. Torres opens up about the victories and controversies of her sport.

15 Questions with Dara G. Torres

Twelve Olympic medals. Five Olympic Games. A laundry list of American and world records. This is the resume of elite ...
By H. Zane B. Wruble

Twelve Olympic medals. Five Olympic Games. A laundry list of American and world records. This is the resume of elite swimmer Dara G. Torres, who at the age of 41 won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the oldest member of the US Olympic swim team. During her visit last week to Harvard, Torres sat down with FM to talk about super-fast swimsuits, the trials and triumphs of her career, and Michael Phelps’ nickname for his older teammate.

1. Fifteen Minutes: How did your involvement in swimming first begin?

Dara G. Torres:  I started  swimming on a swim team when I was seven or eight years old. I had four older brothers and whatever they did I would do, so I would go to the pool with my mom and I didn’t like sitting in the bleachers and watching them swim, so I wanted to swim.

2. FM:  At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, you won silver in the 50 meter freestyle, missing out on gold by one hundredth of a second. How did you feel about losing out on the gold by such a close margin?

DGT: It’ll probably eat at me for the rest of my life. (Laughs) It was tough because I went over and over in my head what I could have done differently. There’s really nothing I would have changed, because I swam the best race of my life. But I’m very competitive and I don’t like to lose, so the fact that I lost that race will always eat at me.

3. FM: But an American record’s nothing to sneeze at, right?

DGT: No. Look, I mean I went into this race ranked fifth in the world, I’m a 41-year-old mom, not expecting to do anything, so the fact that I did get a silver is a great thing. I just like to win, so that’s why I think it’ll always eat at me that I lost by that close of a time.

4. FM: How would you say the sport has changed during your career?

DGT: The biggest thing would probably be the technology. The strokes haven’t changed that much. The bathing suit obviously was one of the biggest changes. I went to school in ’84 where the less suit the better; you would shave your body down and grease your body up and that was the fastest thing. Now the suit’s the fastest thing.

5. FM: Last year the International Swimming Federation banned the use of non-textile swimsuits that were thought to cause many new world records. Do you think these suits gave you a clear benefit?

DGT: Absolutely. I mean, you’re not going to be some person off the street, put a suit on and break a world record, but I felt a difference when I dove in the pool. I felt like I was just sort of skyrocketing through the water...like I was floating on top of the water more so than I already do. I definitely felt a difference when I was swimming and my times dropped—a big drop. I’m glad they’re going back to the old school and it’s gonna be the swimmer that’s fast, not just the suit.

6. FM: During your career you have won 12 Olympic medals and broken multiple American records. What would you consider the most memorable race of your career?

DGT: Oh, boy. Probably the first race I broke a world record in. I was 15 years old, I was over in Holland swimming in a meet. I had a crush on a swimmer named Rowdy Gaines. He came up to me, and I was on the massage table, and I was getting ready for the finals of the 50, and he threw out a time he thought I could go. And I’m like, “Yeah, whatever, that’s a world record, you know. I’m 15.” And I go and swim my race, touch the wall, and it was the exact same time he predicted. And so you kind of remember those things. It was your first world record, you had a crush on a boy then, and you’re in a foreign country. You’re still in like ninth grade or middle school or something or a freshman in high school, and you just remember.

7. FM: Had swimming not worked out for you, what career do you think you would have pursued instead?

DGT: After the ’92 Olympics I actually got into television for a while. I was doing sports commentating. I did a little bit of that for the 2000 Olympics. I like interviewing people. I know that I’ve been asked some real lame questions in the past, and I want to be able to talk to people and have them appreciate what I’m asking them.

8. FM: Has it ever been difficult balancing your time between being a mother and being a swimmer?

DGT: I’ve really looked to working parents as inspiration to figure out how to juggle being a great parent and also doing what I love to do, and it’s hard. You have to find a balance that works best for you and your child or children. I was lucky I was able to find something that worked for Tessa [Torres’ daughter] and worked for me.

9. FM: So do you intend to put her in swimming?

DGT: I’ve plopped her in the pool a few times. I really just did that for water safety, it is one of the sports she does along with some other ones, so she can choose what she does when she gets older. (Laughs) Psycho mom.

10. FM: Have you ever experienced an injury that threatened to end your career?

DGT: I actually have one right now. I just had a fix at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital here in Boston—reconstructive knee surgery and cartilage transplant. And I won’t know if I can continue swimming at the level I was swimming at for about nine months. This is definitely one. I’ve had numerous shoulder surgeries, but I ended up getting through those.

11. FM: Is it emotionally difficult to face the possibility that you might not be able to return?

DGT: It’s very difficult. I don’t want a knee injury to dictate what I want to do with my life. And so I’m hoping that it will be good enough where I can say, “Yes, I want to do this; no, I don’t want to do this.” I want the choice. So I haven’t faced that yet. We’ll see what happens.

12. FM: In 2008 you were the oldest member of the Olympic swim team. Did the other team members treat you specially at all?

DGT: Well, Michael Phelps called me “Mom.” I was trying to be more of a big sister. I found myself gravitating towards the coaches and trainers, because they’re more my age. But if they had questions, I was more than happy to help them and sort of guide them. I don’t know if it was more my age or more that I had been there so many times. But it was fun. I felt like I was useful and I was able to help.

13. FM: Did they ever come to you asking for advice on approaching races or competitive strategy?

DGT: I’ve been asked about everything from “Are there condoms in the Olympic Village?” to “How do you deal with nerves?” to having a bad race and getting ready for your next race. I’ve been asked everything.

14. FM: You’ve said previously that you consider accusations of using performance-enhancing drugs as a compliment. You’ve also willingly submitted to enhanced drug testing. Did you think it was necessary to preemptively prove that you are clean?

DGT: Because in the world of drugs, you’re basically guilty until proven innocent, so I basically had to prove myself innocent and not have everyone assume because of my age that I was cheating. And you have Nolan Ryan, the baseball pitcher, pitching a no-hitter at 44 years old, and you have Jack Nicklaus, at Masters at 61. Why can’t a 41-year-old mom compete in the Olympic Games? Unfortunately, there are other athletes that have lied about it, and when you have that stigma on you and your accomplishments, I felt like that’s what I had to do, and just prove it.

15. FM: What’s next for you?

DGT: I have a book coming out called “Gold Metal Fitness,” which is a fitness book, comes out in May—I’m doing a book tour for that. I’m doing motivational talks; I’m sort of busy with that. I’m going to wait and see in the summertime how my knee is, and I’ll make a decision whether to keep going or not.

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