The Mother of All Comebacks

July 14, 2008
July 14, 2008

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July 14, 2008

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The Mother of All Comebacks

Youth, as expected, was served at the swim trials, but the epic splash was made by 41-year-old Dara Torres, who became the oldest American swimmer ever to qualify for the Games

IT WASN'T untilafter she had touched the wall in the 100-meter freestyle final before astunned crowd at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha last Friday night thatDara Torres really showed her age. Pushing back the vintage goggles that areolder than some of her competitors, the 41-year-old mom looked up at thescoreboard and ... squinted. ¬∂ "I couldn't see if I had won," saidTorres, whose time of 53.78 put her .05 of a second ahead of 25-year-oldrunner-up Natalie Coughlin. "They need to make the numbers bigger forpeople my age." ¬∂ That had rarely been an issue for the sport beforeTorres, who won nine medals over four Summer Games (1984, '88, '92 and 2000),decided to come out of retirement for a third time two years ago. In winningthe 100 free, she became the oldest American swimmer to make an Olympic teamand the first to make five teams. Although she says she felt "like I hadbeen run over by a train" the next morning, Torres recovered to win Sundayevening's 50 free over Jessica Hardy by half a body length and set a U.S.record of 24.25—her second American record of the meet. "I don't know whatyou even compare it to," says men's assistant coach Frank Busch of Torres'sperformance. "I don't know that people really grasp what that means. She'sobviously talented, but determined? The sacrifices she's made? At 41 years ofage?"

This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue

Torres'smind-boggling performances stole some of the spotlight from what was otherwisea showcase for a younger generation of established swimming stars. As expected,Michael Phelps, 23, won all five of his finals, breaking world records in bothmedleys and setting himself up for a shot at winning a record eight gold medalsin Beijing. His former North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Katie Hoff, 19,won all five of her events too—setting a world record in the 400 IM and U.S.records in the 200 IM and 200 freestyle—to equal the mark set by ShirleyBabashoff at the 1976 trials. Coughlin gave herself a chance to match or betterher Athens haul of five medals by winning the 100 back in a world-record timeof 58.97 and finishing second in the 100 free and the 200 IM, an event shedecided to swim just two weeks ago.

The record crowdsat the trials included more than just U.S. swim fans. Italian national teamcoach Alberto Castagnetti showed up, as did French technical director ClaudeFauquet and a slew of international journalists, including about 20 from Japan.The Japanese were there in large part to track the progress of breaststrokerBrendan Hansen, the rival of Japanese swimming star Kosuke Kitajima. Hansen,who because of the rivalry is far more famous in Japan than he is in the U.S.,won the 100 breaststroke in Omaha, but shockingly, he faltered in his signatureevent, the 200 breast, finishing fourth as two of his Texas training partners,Scott Spann and Eric Shanteau, secured spots on the team. "I train withthese guys every day," said Hansen, who lost an opportunity to win theindividual gold medal that eluded him in Athens and reclaim his world record,which Kitajima broke last month. "Ultimately I might have trained them alittle too well."

While Japan wasabuzz about Hansen, the French contingent took note of the men's 100 freestyle.Since Alain Bernard swam a world-record 47.50 in March, the French have beenfavorites in the men's 4√ó100 free relay. But in the 100 free prelims and semisin Omaha, three men—Phelps, Jason Lezak and eventual winner GarrettWeber-Gale—all broke 48 seconds for the first time.

Leading theAmerican sprinting resurgence is Weber-Gale, a 22-year-old from Wisconsin whoalso won the 50 free, beating, among others, two-time defending Olympic goldmedalist Gary Hall Jr. His coach at Texas, Eddie Reese, who is also the's head coach, had always told him kicking was his gift, but Weber-Galedidn't figure out how to fully integrate it into his stroke until this March.Since then he has lowered his PRs by a second in the 50 and a second and a halfin the 100.

Although the men'ssquad has a surprising number of first-timers such as Weber-Gale, Schubertbelieves it is "one of the greatest men's teams we've ever fielded."But he says the comparisons being made to the 1976 team, which won 12 of 13gold medals in Montreal, are premature. "They will have a tremendouschallenge equaling what the '76 team did," says U.S. national team directorMark Schubert, pointing to this team's relative weaknesses in breaststroke andmiddle-distance freestyle. "The world has gotten a lot morecompetitive."

The Australianwomen's team is the best in the world, but the challenges to the U.S. women,who will be favored in just a handful of events, including both backstrokes,the 400 IM and the 4√ó200 free relay, will come from all over. Consider all thepeople Hoff—who monitors the progress of her global competitors on theInternet—has to keep track of: Stephanie Rice of Australia in the medleys;Federica Pellegrini of Italy in the 200 and 400 free; and Rebecca Adlington ofGreat Britain in the 800, to name just a few. "I like to know where Istand," says Hoff. "I was well aware of Stephanie breaking my record[in the 400 IM in March]; of Pellegrini doing the 400 [world] record."

Torres plans to beon top of her game too. While she had little doubt she would make a relay team,she didn't expect to win the 100 free, an event in which she has decided shewill not compete in Beijing. (She will, however, presumably enter the otherthree events she qualified for—the 50 and both 4√ó100 relays.)

Torres's mostrecent comeback is a credit to an innovative training program that includesweight work that emphasizes core stability as well as several hours a day ofmassage and stretching. She is leaner, more balanced and more efficient in thewater than she was in 2000 when "she swam on strength," says Phelps'scoach, Bob Bowman. "Now it's more finesse-like."

Torres has beenproactive about addressing suspicions of drug use, asking the United StatesAnti-Doping Agency to give her any drug test it could devise. Since March shehas had her blood tested at least a dozen times as part of a USADA pilotprogram. "I want to be an open book," she says. "I want people toknow that I'm 41, and I'm doing this right. I'm clean."

Why is she doingit at all? Torres says she was inspired by a number of fellow masters' swimmerswho told her they wanted to see a 40-year-old in the Olympics. Her coach,Michael Lohberg of the Coral Springs (Fla.) Swim Club, said that it's because"she's nuts. She enjoys jumping in that pool and swimming fast because ofthe feeling she gets. Tonight, to touch that wall, this is [that feeling]. Shewants to look at the scoreboard and say, You know what, people? I'm Number1."

"I don't know that people grasp what it means. THESACRIFICES THAT DARA'S MADE? At 41 years of age?"



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PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz KluetmeierJUST WIN, BABY Before a huge crowd that included two-year-old Tessa, Torres took the 50 free in a U.S.-record time of 24.25.PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz Kluetmeier [Seecaption above]PHOTOJOHN BIEVERWORLD OF HER OWN Coughlin swam the fastest 100 back ever and may have a shot at medals in five other events in Beijing.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERFAST WORK Weber-Gale is leading a much-needed U.S. sprinting resurgence.