Dara Torres is ageless. She has competed in four Olympics spanning three decades. She has never failed to bring home a medal. She has also been a Sports Illustrated model, Tae Bo pitch-woman, NBC commentator, and an advocate for resolving eating disorders and competing drug-free. Every four years, she seems to reappear, but rarely has her Olympic metamorphosis been chronicled in one place. So here is a roundup of where Torres has been every four years since her Olympic debut in 1984, and how she's seizing the chance to become the oldest swimming medalist in history, at 41.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Torres was a Beverly Hills teenager who had just completed her junior year at Westlake, a private girls' school in L.A. whose alumnae include Bridget Fonda and the astronaut Sally Ride, and where one of Torres' classmates was Richard Pryor's daughter. But Torres, 17, was making a name for herself in swimming. One month before the LA Games, she set an American record in the 50m freestyle but the event didn't exist for women at the Olympics yet. So instead, she helped the US win gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay in her Olympic debut.
In 1988, Torres had just finished her junior year of college at the University of Florida. Her major was public communications. Her minor was education. And her mission was to win medals in Seoul. Little did the public know, she had been battling bulimia since her freshman year of college. All told, she said, "I had it for five years." Despite its effect on her performance, she was one of just five female veterans returning from the 1984 US Olympic swim team and helped the US capture bronze in the 4x100m free relay. When she came home from South Korea, however, she hung up her goggles. She was done. She even joined Florida's volleyball team.
Torres stayed in Florida after graduating, began working for NBC Sports, then decided 11 months before the 1992 Olympic swimming trials that she wanted to try for a third Olympics at age 25. It motivated her to end her eating disorder, she said, and quit bingeing and purging "cold turkey". By then, she had also undergone two (of six) knee surgeries, but she made the Barcelona team and was named the US team's co-captain and its self-proclaimed "grandma." In Spain, she won another gold medal in the 4x100m free relay. Back in the States, she hung up her goggles once again. Finished.
In 1996, Torres was married and went to the Atlanta Olympics as a spectator and Reebok spokesperson. "I was just so used to getting passes and going everywhere. It was different being a regular person." She attended gymnastics and track and field events, but not swimming. "I don't know why," she says. "When you're retired, either you have some interest or none whatsoever."
By 2000, she was 33, divorced, had done the Tae Bo thing, and had four Olympic medals, all from relays. She decided she wanted more. But the sport had changed in the seven years since she left it. So she altered her stroke, modified her diet, shimmied into a newfangled bodysuit, again qualified for the Olympics, and earned five medals in Sydney (gold in two relays, and bronze in three individual sprints) - her biggest cache at a single Games. Then she quit. Again.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Torres worked as a swimming commentator for NBC's Hi-Definition broadcasts. "I was fine with it," she said of her second retirement. "It's not like I had the Olympic itch." Nor did she seem to have the "itch" in the immediate aftermath of those Games.
"It only hit me," Torres said, "after I had given birth and was swimming fast." She qualified for the 2006 Masters World Championships at Stanford, Calif., just three months after delivering her first child, Tessa.
"There were about 5,000 swimmers there and it felt like 5,000 people said to me, ‘I'd love to see you go for another Olympics.' Even going into that meet, I had no interest," she says. "I was still breast feeding between events."
Now, Torres has qualified for her fifth Olympic team. On Friday night, at the US Olympic Swimming Trials, in Omaha, Neb, she secured an individual berth in the 100m freestyle event as well as the 4x100m free relay, and may qualify for another event this weekend in the 50m freestyle. In Beijing, she will be the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympics and the oldest female swimmer in the history of the Games.
Which isn't to say all has gone swimmingly in Torres' latest comeback.
"I have my bad days even though I'm swimming fast," she said.
Four months after Torres swam a lifetime best in the 50m freestyle (24.53) at age 40, she had surgery in November 2007 to remove a bone spur in her right shoulder. As recently as this spring, she said, "I was in my coach's office saying, I don't want to be here. I'm exhausted. Not everything's peachy."
Her fast times, coupled with her age, have also prompted suspicion of steroid use to which she replies: "I like talking about it. I met with the CEO of [the United States Anti-Doping Agency] and said, ‘Please, DNA-test, blood-test me, whatever. I want to be an open book.'"
"So to anyone out there that doubts me? To me, that's just a compliment. I now take that as a compliment that I'm doing that well."
What Torres will be doing in 2012 is anyone's guess. But her latest comeback has taught her one thing: "I thought that maybe competitiveness would dissipate as you get older. But it doesn't. I'm probably more competitive now than I've ever been in my life. Why? I don't know. It's just how I'm made up."
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.