Swimming Upstream

Parkland's Dara Torres can outrace Olympic swimmers half her age, but beating the skeptics may prove more difficult

And her muscles require more careful maintenance, since after Torres exercises, she develops lactic acid and adhesions — a buildup of scar tissue on the muscle fibers — that sap strength from her aging muscles. That's where massage therapists Steve Sierra and Anne Tierney come in.

After a recent workout at the Coral Springs Aquatic Center, Sierra, a lean, tanned guy with short, frosted hair and a huge, gleaming grin, literally stood on Torres' quadriceps and hamstrings, using the outer arch of his foot to massage and separate the muscle fibers. Meanwhile, Tierney, a former college basketball player, used the balls of her heels to massage Torres' chest and shoulder muscles. Torres' face betrayed no hint of pain. As Sierra waded across her inner thigh, Torres' thumbs darted across a BlackBerry keypad.

Says Tierney: "Yeah, that's not normal. If we did this to [Sierra], he'd be screaming."

Dara Torres, 41, will compete against women young enough to be her daughters.
Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images/Newcom Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images/Newcom
Dara Torres, 41, will compete against women young enough to be her daughters.

Torres also has a secret weapon in her arsenal not currently available in the United States — an amino acid supplement designed to promote strength and muscle recovery. It was developed by a German swimmer who became the oldest world champion at 32 years old.

On the advice of her coach, who wants her to focus on the Olympic trials, Torres declined to be interviewed for this article.

There is no precedent in the sport of swimming for what Torres is trying to do. The closest example is an ominous one. At the identical age of 41, Mark Spitz, arguably the best swimmer in Olympics history, attempted a comeback in 1992, 20 years after retiring. Though his times were as good as or better than those that had earned him medals a few decades before, he failed to even qualify. Training, swimsuit materials, and nutrition were propelling swimmers through the water faster and faster.

Torres hasn't been away from the sport as long as Spitz had, however. And recent studies, like the one by Dr. Phil Whitten, executive director of the College Swim Coaches Association of America, suggest that consistency in training can almost make time stand still. "If you train, the decline doesn't start at 25 at all... What I found is that men and women hit their peak at about 33 or 34 and have a very slow decline for about ten years or so.

"But if that person doesn't suffer an injury and continues to train, which Dara has done, they should be as good at 41 or 42 as they were at 25."

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