Dara Torres made her Olympic debut at the age of 17 at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, where she won gold in her only race – the 4x100-meter freestyle. Little did she know she would continue winning medals for the next 24 years. Torres won two medals in 1988 and one in 1992 before retiring. After seven years out of competition, she returned for the 2000 Games and won five medals in Sydney, including her first three individual medals. She then retired again before returning for the 2008 Games. At the age of 41 Torres won three medals and become the oldest Olympic swimming medalist, beating a record held since 1908. The 12-time medalist (four of each color) remains in a three-way tie for most decorated U.S. Olympic woman. To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her final Olympic medals (Aug. 17, 2008), Torres wrote about her memories for TeamUSA.org.
When I arrived in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, I was overwhelmed with emotions. On the one hand, I was super excited that I was getting to compete again and at 41 was still holding my own with the greatest swimmers in the world. On the other hand, this is the Olympic Games! I was just as nervous for these competitions as I was the first time I stepped onto the Olympic starting blocks at 17. I couldn’t believe I was back 24 years later, but I was determined to prove that I still belonged on that stage.
Just a few weeks before I left for Beijing, I got the news that my coach Michael Lohberg had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and wasn’t going to be able to make the trip. He had worked so hard to get me to where I was, and I wanted him there to see that hard work pay off. The sadness was really hard to keep in check, and I visited with the team psychiatrist who helped me center my thoughts and focus on the next eight days of competition.
My first race was the 4x100-meter freestyle. I was the anchor leg with a great group of women and competitors in Natalie Coughlin, Lacey Nymeyer and Kara Lynn Joyce. We brought home the silver medal and set a new American record for the relay. If you know anything about me, you know I hate to lose. Yet I was proud of what we accomplished and had to refocus on the next task at hand.
The 2008 50-meter freestyle was the first time I had ever been seeded No. 1 going into an individual Olympic individual final. It was definitely a different feeling knowing everyone was gunning for me; not to mention my past Olympic final swims had all been at night. With the time difference in Beijing, this final was taking place at 10 a.m. Everyone was dealing with this early morning start, and I told the team coaches I wanted to be the first one there.
We took the first bus over to the pool at 6:45 a.m. and I went through my regular warmups, memorizing everything in my lane. Before I knew it, I was up on the starting block and diving into my only individual event of the Games that year. When I touched the wall, I looked up and saw the results… 0.01 seconds from the gold. I hardly had time to let it sink in. The next 30 minutes was a blur as I rushed to the NBC booth for a quick interview, accepted the silver medal during the medal ceremony and then back to the ready room to anchor the 4x100 medley with Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni and Christine Magnuson.
Dara Torres reacts after finishing second in the women's 50-meter freestyle at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 17, 2008 in Beijing.
During this time, I also got a chance to speak with my coach Michael back home before I competed in the medley relay. He always had advice for how I could improve and he said I needed to hit the touch pad harder (more on that in a minute). Our team coach Mark Schubert was in the ready room and encouraged me to get the race off my mind and realize I had three other people depending on me to deliver in the medley relay.
I gave that final race everything I had, and we won the silver medal with another American record. I found out later I’d ripped a ligament off my thumb bone for hitting the touch pad too hard... you could say I take my coach’s advice pretty seriously.
The 2008 Olympic Games were an incredible experience that will stay with me forever. Age really is just a number, and I refuse to let it slow me down even now 10 years after my last Olympic race. I feel this is a really important lesson for everyone striving to achieve the life goals they’ve set for themselves. This includes my own daughter, who is 12 years old now and starting to get into her own sports. It is a lot different being a sideline parent, but it makes me appreciate even more the help of my parents, friends, coaches and others who supported me and pushed me to be my best throughout my career in swimming.
I still love to work out and became co-owner of a Bar Method studio in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with my friend and colleague Sarah Bauman in October of last year. I was so inspired by Sarah and the women around me in the next few weeks that I decided I wanted to become a bar method instructor. After six months of studying manuals, watching training videos, taking tests, video taping myself for the national trainers’ review and four eight-hour days of training with a national trainer, I was certified as an instructor. It was incredibly challenging. Many long, tiring days spent learning a new craft and how to run a successful business. But I am always up for a challenge and this one was well worth it!
In addition to my current role as an anchor on the all-women CBS Sports Network show “We Need to Talk,” motivational speaking has become a huge part of my life post-Olympics. It’s given me a great avenue to empower and inspire others through my life journey. I speak to groups of women, kids, companies and organizations big and small talking about what it takes to be a champion every day, not letting your age determine your success, overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles and finding a comfortable work-life balance.
People say I’m an inspiration. As I travel the globe, I have so many people coming up to me and telling me their own stories and what they’ve overcome to get to this point. What they don’t know is it is those very people who continue to inspire me every day to keep pushing myself and make a difference in the lives of those around me.