Thursday, Jul. 24, 2008

What's Driving Dara Torres

United States
Age: 41

I can't stop staring at Dara Torres' veins. They're hard to miss, emerging as they do out of her impressively carved forearms; or the ones streaking across her calves. I'm obsessing over them because — well, because Torres, a nine-time Olympic medalist in swimming, is 41, the mother of a two-year old, and has just qualified for her fifth Olympic Games, something no other swimmer has ever done. Oh, and the time in the 100m freestyle that got her a ticket to Beijing? It was 2.47 seconds faster than her Olympic effort in 1988, at age 21 — a lifetime in such a short race. So I keep flashing to images of body builders and athletes pumped on steroids with veins bulging out their eyeballs and wondering, Does she or doesn't she?

This is why it's hard to be Dara Torres. In the weeks following the Olympic Trials in July, where she earned spots in the 50m and 100m freestyle events and potentially a relay, there are only two questions anyone wants to ask her: Why are you putting yourself through this again? And: What are you putting in youself to make it through?

Physically, Torres looks as taut and toned as swimmers half her age, and not only did she clock the fastest times in her events, but she set a new American record for the 50m free, the splash-and- dash across one length of the pool that is her specialty. (She decided not to swim the 100m free in Beijing.) The holder of that previous record? None other than Torres' younger self, who set the mark at her last Olympics, in 2000. And think about this: She first set the 50m world mark in 1982, at age 14. Amanda Beard, the second oldest woman on the U.S. team, was then barely a year old. Torres is 12 lbs. lighter now than she was in Sydney, and, she says, "I really feel like I enjoy swimming now more than I ever have. I enjoy competing more than I ever have."

Which brings us to the why. To hear Torres tell it over a gulped down sandwich in the midst of the Olympic team training camp in Palo Alto in July, the urge to not just swim, but to race, is something that seems embedded in her. The seven-year hiatus from elite level training didn't intimidate Torres from coming back; it just made her hungrier for a race. She had been swimming Masters events after retiring in 2000, and continued logging laps through morning sickness, and soon after, the birth of daughter Tessa in 2006. It was the time she swam in the 50m at the Masters World Championships of August that year that earned her a spot at the Olympic trials this July. "I had literally just breast fed my daughter, got on the blocks and got ready to swim," she says. "I didn't know what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised."

Before the meet was over, Torres had decided to return to competitive swimming and keep that spot at the Trials. "I couldn't count the number of people who came up to me at that meet and said it would be great to see someone our age at the Olympics," she says. "It got the wheels spinning."

So now for the trickier question — how is a middle-aged body faster and stronger now than it was 20 years ago?" I knew I was going to be under a lot of scrutiny because I'm 40 and I'm doing this," she says. Questions had swirled around her last Olympic effort, in 2000 at age 33, when she also qualified in the 50m by breaking an American record. Test me, test me, she insisted, telling USA Swimming to check anything, any time. It complied, subjecting her to urine analyses throughout the summer of 2007. But Torres realized that peeing wasn't going to be enough. "Who's going to believe me if I'm just getting a urine test?" she asks.

That's when she decided to contact Travis Tygart, ceo of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the independent body charged with conducting random drug testing of U.S. elite athletes. "She showed up without a lawyer, without an agent, without a coach," says Tygart of their two-hour meeting at USADA's offices in Colorado Springs last fall. "And withstood probably the worst cross examination of any of the other athletes. I kept asking her, 'Why should I believe you?'" Torres offered samples of whatever Tygart might need to help prove her drug-free status — DNA, hair, blood, urine.

So USADA, too, complied. As it happened, the agency had been formulating a new, more comprehensive drug-testing program that it wanted to try out with a handful of Beijing-bound athletes. Torres is one of a dozen athletes involved in the pilot project; she provides urine and five vials of blood every two to three weeks, and these are tested for a range of biomarkers — biological substances that are affected by agents such as steroids or performance- enhancing hormones. The idea is that even if a specific doping agent can't be detected, its effects on muscle, tissue and other body functions will be. Torres' results are compared to the baseline measurements taken at the beginning of the program, which USADA keeps on file, as well as to population-based averages.

The one thing USADA could not — and cannot — provide Torres is a certificate proving she is clean. "The science is not at the stage where we can give a 100% guarantee to any athlete that they are clean," says Tygart. "But if they aren't clean, then they would have to be a fool, or a huge risk taker to do a program like this."

For the record, Torres tells me that the only things she puts in her body are approved by USADA, or vetted by her — last year, she switched her asthma medication to a lower dose that the agency greenlights because it relieves symptoms without increasing lung capacity to the point where it gives her an unfair advantage. She takes an amino acid supplement for muscle recovery and strength that is made in Germany, a fact that fueled an explosion of new suspicions. Why a German product? "The guy who invented them is great friends with my coach, who is also German," she says. "After talking to him, and learning more about them, why not take a product where you know the person who made it and know exactly what is in the product? Why take a chance with something on the market where you don't know if it's tainted or not?" But why take them at all, I ask, if she has to defend them? "Because it helps my recovery, and it's not illegal, so why not?" she says.

It's not what she puts in her body, she argues, but what she does to her body that has gotten her in Olympic shape. In addition to a more dynamic regimen of weight training, since 2000, she has been taking advantage of resistance stretching, a flexibility and strength-building program that uses an individual's own force to work out muscles. Done either on your own or with a partner, it boils down to this—while most strength-building exercises involve contracting muscles (think of lifting your leg in front of you to 90 degrees), resistance stretching requires both contracting and stretching muscles during a repetition, so there is no 'release' phase (imagine someone pushing down on your leg as you resist while you bring it back down). "It's made me lighter in the water," says Torres. "So in the water it's not about power but more about making my stroke more efficient."

And the more efficient she gets, the louder the questions. "I decided to become an open book, and asked to be tested in any way they want to show I'm clean," she says. "I understand if I just sat there and said I passed my tests, that people wouldn't believe me. I've gone beyond the call of duty to prove I'm clean, but you are guilty until proven innocent in this day and age, so what else can I do? It's a real bummer."

A few days after our talk at the camp, Torres calls to leave a message about all the questions surrounding her performances. "I feel like I have so many middle-aged women who look up to me. I want them to feel proud, and feel like they can do what they set out to do," she says. "I would never do anything to disappoint these women."

She won't, even if she doesn't make the podium in Beijing, as long as she's clean. Because she will still have made history just by competing. And that's why, at 41, an elite swimmer, mother, and an Olympian, it's good to be Dara Torres.