Dara Torres celebrates winning the semifinal of the 50-meter freestyle at the 2008 U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials on July 5, 2008 in Omaha, Nebraska.
During a swimming career spanning five Olympic Games, Dara Torres won 12 Olympic medals and is the oldest swimmer ever to win an Olympic medal.
So it’s no surprise that she is being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame. But the five-time Olympian is more impressed with her fellow class of 2019 hall of fame inductees than with her own accolades.
“All these athletes are so respected in their sports and what they’ve done in their careers,” she said by phone from her home in Florida. “To be in the company of the likes of the Paralympians and the other Olympians who have had so much success in their careers, it’s an honor to be included in this class.”
Of the 154 people and teams who have been inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame since 1983, 21 are swimmers. Torres joins the likes of Mark Spitz, Shirley Babashoff and Duke Kahanamoku, also known for being the father of modern surfing.
Torres never set out to swim competitively for over a quarter century. She won her first Olympic medal at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984 and her final three at the Beijing 2008 Games as a 41-year-old mother.
“When you’re younger, you think about your parents in their 40s, and as a kid, you think, ‘Oh my god, that is so old,’” she replied with a laugh when asked if she ever thought her competitive swimming career would last that long.
Torres just liked to swim and was good at it. She has quick reflexes and a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers — 70 percent, according to a 1984 story in Sports Illustrated, 20 percentage points more than the average swimmer.
At age 14, in 1982, Torres won her first national title in the 50-yard freestyle, beating Jill Sterkel, an Olympic and world medalist. The next year, she broke Sterkel’s world record in the 50-meter freestyle. She would lower it again twice before the 1984 Games, where at age 17, Torres helped the Americans win an Olympic gold medal in the 4x100 freestyle. (Her best event, the 50 freestyle, would not make its Olympic debut until 1988.)
It was the first of 12 Olympic medals for Torres, tying her with Jenny Thompson and Natalie Coughlin for the most Olympic medals won by women in swimming and the most by U.S. women in any sport. Only Michael Phelps has more with 28 (Ryan Lochte has also won 12). In each of her five Olympic Games — 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008 — Torres won at least one medal.
But it’s not her vast medal collection for which Torres is best known. She inspired her fans by defying age limitations. In two of her five Olympic appearances, Torres was the oldest member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team. And at the 2000 Games in Sydney, she won more Olympic medals than any other American swimmer, including her first medals in individual events (bronzes in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 butterfly).
Her coach at the time, Richard Quick, said, “I still don’t think you’ve reached your full potential.”
“What are you talking about?” thought Torres. “I’m 33.”
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“At that point, in the early 2000s, people were still considering athletes in their 30s as old,” she said. “It still wasn’t a common thing.”
After the 2000 Games, Torres was ready to move on and start a family. It was pregnancy that got her back in the pool. The nausea from pregnancy made working out tough. Then a lightbulb went off.
“I can swim,” Torres thought. “If I get morning sickness, I can get sick in the gutter and keep going. It’s not a big deal, I don’t have to clean anything up.”
Plus, being in the water felt good on her pregnant body. The baby moved around and did not push on her ribs.
But she had no intention of returning to Olympic competition.
“I was going to have a baby at 39,” she said. “Why would I be swimming for an Olympics?”
As her due date neared, the swim club’s coach asked if she would compete in the masters nationals. He hoped Torres’ name would bring more spectators to the pool.
The day Tessa was delivered in April 2006, Torres asked her doctor if she could compete in the meet. It was three weeks away. No way, he said, nothing aerobic for six weeks. But then Torres ran into him at the gym a week-and-a-half later. This time he agreed, as long as she was careful.
“So I went back to the house and put on a swimsuit – it wasn’t a great sight,” she said.
After that meet, her daughter’s father, also a swimmer, convinced her to join him at masters world championships. There, she qualified for the 2008 Olympic trials.
“When that happened, all these people came up to me and said you should go to the Olympics, you can represent us 40-year-olds,” she said. “It wasn’t like I’d been thinking about it for years. It was just the peer pressure of these masters athletes that wanted to see someone their age competing in the Olympics.”
While the rest of the world wondered how a middle-aged mom would do in a sport known for its teenage phenoms, Torres knew that age was just a number. The word ‘old’ meant little to her.
“At my third Olympics in 1992, I was 25, and they called me Grandma because I was the oldest woman on the team,” Torres said. “So at 33 [at the 2000 Games], god knows what they called me. But at 41, they probably wondered, ‘Shouldn’t you be in your grave?’”
Most definitely not. At the 2008 Games, Torres won three silver medals — missing gold in the 50 free by 0.01 seconds. She became the oldest swimmer ever to win an Olympic medal, surpassing William Robinson, a 38-year-old Brit who in 1908 won a silver medal in the 200 breaststroke. She also broke the American record in the 50 free. She might have won four medals, but she dropped out of the 100 free to focus on the 50.
“She has gotten rid of the mythology in swimming that has been there for so long (that mothers should stop competing),” Natalie Coughlin told the press during the Beijing Games. “We are all very proud to be on the team with Dara.”
In 2009, Torres published her first book, “Age Is Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life.” Then in 2010, her second book, “Gold Medal Fitness: A Revolutionary 5-Week Program,” hit the shelves.
Torres competed at the 2009 world championships, but a bad knee had kept her from training much and she finished eighth in the 50 free. After knee surgery, she competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but missed her sixth Olympic team by 0.09 seconds.
Since then, Torres has worked as a TV commentator and host, motivational speaker, vice president for the U.S. branch of the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, which focuses on drowning prevention, and as a wellness ambassador for CaniBrands, educating people on the benefits of CBD products.
And, of course, Torres is a mom. Tessa is now 13 and is an avid lacrosse player.
As for her legacy, that is a word Torres does not like to use.
“I like to say hopefully I inspired people who thought maybe they were too old to do what they dreamt of doing, or I inspired some parents that maybe thought, ‘I can’t do this because I’m a mom or a dad and I can’t balance it,’” she said. “You can find a balance that works best for you and your kids and follow your dreams.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.