World Class over 40

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This Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The heartbreak of world-class sports is that an athlete retires while she's still young, oftentimes never to excel or find such passion again. And yet a 41-year old promises to be the darling of the Beijing Games. A quarter century ago, Dara Torres was a world-beater in the pool, at the tender age of 15. Long and lithe, with a special feel for the water, she was an obvious special talent as a teenager, the time when many elite swimmers hit their prime.

Back when Dara Torres first became the fastest American woman freestyle sprinter, she still spoke with a lilt of baby talk as the baby of the US team at the LA ‘84 Olympics. Sure, she put in the laps as a kid, but what we saw back then were pure God-given gifts. She was simply born to swim. In her later teens and early 20's, she worked harder to excavate that talent and made two more Olympic teams, Seoul and Barcelona. Three Olympics, four medals. She retired after carving herself a place in American Olympic history. For the next seven years, Torres lived a normal life. Broadcasting, motivational speaking. No swimming but always fit. Then she got the itch before the Sydney Games in 2000. Her friends and family, the swimming world at large said “Not likely, a 33-year old, resurrecting that kind of speed after seven years away from it…not likely.” But she quickly found her natural dynamic for gliding atop the surface. You'll notice that you can see much more of Torres' body out of the water than the other great swimmers. It's not easy to look pretty when you're sprinting. That's true for both runners and swimmers. The effort is so intense that your body doesn't present the longer, aesthetic strides and glides that come with middle or longer distances. Not so with Torres. At flat-out sprint speed, she's poetry. She creates a hydrodynamic ballet.

She not only defied all predictions and made the 2000 team. She won five medals Down Under, bringing her career total to nine. She retired again, again for seven years, again living a non-athlete but fit life. Athens came and went, 2004. In 2006 she gave birth to baby Tessa. Then, a year ago, the itch returned. Could she possibly sneak in to the last place for qualifying and make the Beijing squad? Well, 27 years after her teenage feats, she has wound up swimming faster than she ever did as a kid….and again faster than all the rest. She hasn't just sneaked onto the team. She finished top dog in the sprints at the Trials and now will make history by being the first swimmer to compete in five Olympic Games.

The hints of Torres taking illegal performance drugs this week are patently absurd. She voluntarily entered a program by which she is not only urine but blood tested constantly.

By virtue of one-in-a-million talent and a lifetime commitment to fitness, Torres is reminiscent of Martina Navratilova. For Martina to have played Grand Slam tennis at the age of 50 is more than a tribute to her undeniable superior genetics. It's a statement about honing and tuning the body as a first-chair violinist takes care of her instrument. I find it fascinating and eye-opening that Torres, among her entourage of nutritionists, coaches, and masseurs, has two people called her “stretchers”. After every workout, every race, they tug and manipulate her fascia, her joints, her muscles and render her body as supple as it was way back in the days of her first Olympics.

Is there any doubt that Dara Torres would have made both the Atlanta and Athens Games, had she gone for them, and would thus be heading to her seventh Olympics?

No, there's no doubt. Michael Phelps was supposed to be the Beijing swimming story, trying to break Mark Spitz's 36-year old record of seven golds at one Games. But now Dara Torres is the Beijing swimming story. Actually, Dara Torres may well be the Beijing story, period.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad