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Swimming Upstream

At 7:15 on a morning in mid-June, Dara Torres strode out to the 25-meter pool at the Coral Springs Aquatic Center, turning heads among the teen and preteen swimmers around the Olympic-sized 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.

It's also the kind of physique that, in this cynical sporting age, invites speculation about whether it's purely the product of a training regimen or altered by performance-enhancing drugs. Every prospective Olympian must toil under this suspicion, but Torres may encounter more than her share, if only because she is 41 years old.

On July 3, at the Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, she will compete in the 100-meter freestyle. Two days later, she'll swim in the 50-meter freestyle, an event in which she still holds the American record. Competition will be stiff. "The record will fall at this meet," said Torres' coach, Michael Lohberg. "Everybody tells me she's going to get first."

The other lanes will be filled by swimmers young enough to be her daughters. If she makes the team, she'll be the oldest female American swimmer ever to compete in the Olympic Games. She'll also have the most Olympic berths of any American swimmer in history.

But for all that, her legacy depends just as much on the results of her next lab test.

"There are people in this world who are dirty and want, for whatever reasons, money, fame, and they'll do whatever it takes to win a gold medal," Lohberg says. Torres, he adds, "doesn't need all those things."

Torres started breaking records at 14 years old, setting a national mark for her age group in 1979. She won her first Olympic berth in 1984 at the Games in Los Angeles, where she won a gold medal in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Torres racked up 28 NCAA All-America swimming awards — the maximum one athlete can win.

In 1988, at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, she took home a bronze medal in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay and a silver in the 4-by-100-meter medley. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympiad, Torres captured yet another gold medal in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay. Then she retired from the sport.

Torres' good looks, Olympic pedigree, and zeal for exercise made her a perfect spokeswoman for the late '90s fitness fad, Tae-Bo. Then she became a television commentator, a model, and the first athlete to be featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

But she still missed the thrill of an Olympic race. Torres is an accomplished Olympian but not the kind who gets her picture on a box of Wheaties. In a career that had spanned a quarter century, she had never medaled in an individual event.

So in 1999, after seven years away from the pool, the 33-year-old Torres resolved to make the 2000 team — and she did. Torres collected five medals that year: two golds in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay and the 4-by-100-meter medley relay, plus three bronze medals in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, and the 100-meter butterfly.

Again, Torres retired, and again she returned, in February 2007. Less than a year after giving birth to her first child, Tessa, Torres smashed the Master's record — a competition for older swimmers — for the 50- and 100-meter freestyle.

Like every other aspiring Olympian, Torres is subject to at least one unannounced banned-substances test per month. She is so eager to quash speculation, however, that Torres invited the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the official detectors for U.S. Olympic athletes, to draw her blood and collect her urine as often as they like. Torres has also signed onto a new initiative promoting drug-free sport, called "My Victory, I Compete Clean."

"During an initial three-week period before the pilot program, she'll be tested over and above what's required on an ongoing basis," says Erin Hannan, a spokeswoman for the program.

Of course, that still won't be enough to satisfy the most jaded observers, especially in an era when performance-enhancing drugs are evolving faster than the tests designed to detect them. And the more spectacular the athletic feat, the more inevitable is the speculation.

"No one believes [you can do it without drugs]," Lohberg says. "They won't, no matter what you do."

Australian swimming sensation Ian Thorpe's performance in the 2000 European FINA World Cup Tour was overshadowed by allegations that his times were simply too stunning to be legit. Never mind that subsequent investigations found no evidence of doping — and that then-editor-in-chief of Swimming World Magazine, Phil Whitten, said underwater analysis showed that Thorpe had "extraordinary technique" and that he showed "none of the physical signs of drug use."

If Torres has a secret, it's not drugs, her coach says, but a training program that stresses impeccable technique and incorporates the most modern concepts in sports medicine and biomechanics. At Torres' age, there's no margin for error. Her stroke is cleaner and more technical than ever — it has to be.

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."

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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Brantley Hargrove

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