America loves a fierce competitor. And we have a particular soft spot for athletes who prove to be impervious to the ravages of old age. That's why swimmer Dara Torres, who lives in Parkland, emerged as one of the biggest stars of the 2008 Summer Olympics. At 41, she's the oldest female American swimmer to ever compete in the Olympics.
Torres has already retired twice before, and surely that Olympics was her last -- except now she's mulling over another Olympic bid, this time at age 45, following the radical surgery she had last week in Boston. That operation involved actually cutting her shins so that she could be given new cartilage to replace her own damaged batch.
There's a fine line between cheering an athlete and enabling an addiction. If we haven't crossed it with Torres, we're getting close.
I suppose some will object to the term addiction, but that's the term her own coach favors. Here's Michael Lohberg, quoted in an AP article about Torres' surgery:
Lohberg said he's not as concerned about Torres swimming again as he is about her being able to resume her regular routine. At the moment, just walking around is painful, and getting up and down stairs is agonizing.
"The thing is, she is totally a fitness freak," the coach said. "She loves to be fit like other people like coffee or a smoke, whatever. It's like an addiction for her, a fitness addiction. She needs to be able to use her body to its fullest."
So when a fitness addict has to sign up for a surgery that involves cutting shins and replacing cartilage, isn't that maybe a sign she has already used her body to its fullest? A sign that another grueling round of Olympic training would be downright masochistic?
New Times writer Brantley Hargrove did this story about Torres last year, shortly before the Olympics. Check out his description of seeing Torres at a Coral Springs pool:
She's an imposing sight -- the striated deltoids common to champion swimmers, a back with muscles stretched like bas relief shapes on a sculpture. With her short, dyed-blond hair held away from her face by an elastic headband, Torres almost looked like one of the teenaged boys competing that day. She has the kind of physique a woman needs to win an Olympic medal.
Conspicuously absent from articles about Torres' surgery is an explanation for how, exactly, she acquired that condition. I asked that question to a representative for Torres, but she didn't give an answer. (The rep said that Torres' primary spokesperson is out and sick will be in touch tomorrow -- I'll update then.)
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[H]er 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."
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.
The technology didn't quite win over an analyst at Slate.com. That article, which mostly deals with the rumors of Torres' gaining a competitive advantage from using a banned substance, ends with this very cryptic paragraph.
The mystery is not why Torres might try resistance stretching. It's why she promotes it to reporters and touts it in a video that feels like a late-night infomercial. According to Tierney, Torres has no financial interest in the video and was not even paid to appear in it. That's striking, coming from an athlete who has raked in cash from sponsorships from Speedo and Toyota. Perhaps Torres simply wanted to get the word out about a technique she believes is helping her. Or perhaps she wished to give her stretchers and their company, Innovative Body Solutions, a nice gift. (The company's Web site crashed last week from all the traffic.) But the more she talks about secrets to success that really can't hold all that water, the more it looks like she's straining for an innocent-sounding explanation when there may not be one. And the more one wonders about the secrets she may be hiding.