The spider came dancing down the video screen and Dara Torres zapped it. Ptnnng! Ptnnng! Whatever little troll or mushroom man streamed by she knocked it dead, and Rowdy Gaines seemed awestruck. This was Centipede, by Atari, his game. Gaines, 25, the fastest 100-meter freestyler in the world, had the moves for it, a sprinter's quickness. But Torres, 17, the women's champ in the 50-meter free, has "catlike reflexes," as Mark Schubert, her coach at the Mission Viejo swim club, says. "She has that rare ability to shift her weight at the instant before the gun goes off."
Torres's next video victim didn't have that ability. It was the Centipede itself, for which the game was named. Ptnnng! Ptnnng! It didn't have a chance. Neither did Gaines. "My God," he called out, "you've passed my alltime best score."
Torres and Gaines played their game of Centipede in March in Indianapolis, between sessions of the national indoor championships. The day before, Torres had won at 50 meters in 25.88, only .26 of a second off her American-record and world-best time, and the 10th best in history. In the previous two years she had also achieved the third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-best times, and she was still a month short of her 17th birthday. But a world best isn't a world record. There are none in the 50; the distance isn't contested at international meets, and to swim at the Los Angeles Olympics, Torres would have to step up her training and qualify for the 100-meter free at the U.S. trials later this month in Indianapolis. And so for the past few months Torres has been working very hard.
She does have one very special physical advantage over much of her swimming and video games competition, an unusually high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fiber, the kind that is suited to explosive, or sprint, activity. Do fast-twitch muscle and "catlike" reflexes go together? "Obviously," says Schubert. Last year muscle biopsies were done on Torres and 24 other Mission Viejo swimmers and eight divers, all finalists in national meets. She tested out at 70% fast twitch, 20 percentage points higher than the average swimmer and higher than everyone but two-time world diving champion Greg Louganis, who also had 70% fast-twitch.
Along with Torres's muscle type and reflexes goes a hyperactive nature that might have posed problems had she not discovered the perfect sporting outlet for it. As she says, "You need a lot of hyperness to get you going for sprint events. You can't just sit there moping. I can never do that anyway. Most of my hobbies are sports—windsurfing and jet-skiing—not just sitting around reading books."
The Beach Boys must have had someone like the 5'10½" Torres in mind when they sang "I wish they all could be California girrrls...." One of these days Torres, who lives in Beverly Hills, will undoubtedly begin doing serious damage to a whole string of outstanding young men. She is precociously at home with her body and her brimming energy; her sweet, vaguely snub-nosed face wears a perpetual tawny glow; and her gleaming teeth are nearly always on display. As one Mission Viejo adult friend says, "Dara is so outgoing that nearly everyone is comfortable with her. Another thing that really stands out about her is that she always wants to be Number One in everything she does."
Two years ago, on the night of April 9, Torres was a 14-year-old high school girl who had never finished better than sixth in a national competition. She stood above Lane 5 at the start of the 50-yard freestyle event at the Senior Short Course Nationals, in Gainesville, Fla., glancing nervously to her right. She heard the announcer say, "In Lane Four, never defeated by an American at 50 yards, winner of 14 national collegiate championships, a junior at the University of Texas—Jill Sterkel."
Then the horn went off, and 22.44 seconds later the 20-year-old Sterkel was no longer undefeated by an American at 50 yards. Torres was a national champion. She missed breaking Sterkel's American record by only .03 of a second.
Torres was competing then for the Tandem Swim Club of Culver City, Calif., and it was Tandem coach Terry Palma who refined the distinctive start that helped her beat Sterkel—a "track" start, with one leg extended back. Many swimmers at Gainesville had never seen it before. And it was Palma who taught her how to finish with her shoulders perpendicular to the wall, a position that allows for maximum reach. But he admits that many factors made Torres the champion she is today, and he raves about her "phenomenal reaction time" at the gun. "She should be the fastest woman in the world in the 100-meter free," Palma says. "No one in the U.S. should touch her. She's that talented." But Palma, who has a master's degree in psychology, adds, "She's immature. She doesn't have the mental attitude yet to be as successful as she should be."
One day in May 1983, Torres, her sister, Lara, 15 and a promising swimmer, and a friend were on their way to a weight-training session when they heard that their favorite rock group, Men At Work, was in town. Torres started going down the list of hotels in the yellow pages and phoning to ask for Colin Hay, the group's leader. When she finally heard "I'll connect you," she slammed down the phone and started shrieking. Recovering her composure, she redialed and asked for another member of the group, and when his phone began ringing she hung up again. This time, after calming down, the girls put on their Men At Work T shirts, Torres grabbed the scrapbook of the group's press clippings she had put together, and they drove to the hotel. They sat outside in the car for more than an hour, playing their favorite Men At Work tape, until a limo pulled up and Hay got out. Torres, nearly hysterical and screaming "Oh my God," had to be dragged from the car. But soon she was snapping pictures and getting autographs. Nearly four hours after she had started phoning, the little adventure was over. So was the chance to work out.
In June 1983, after months of discontent with her progress, and craving the more rigorous competition available at a larger swimming club, Torres accepted Schubert's invitation to join Mission Viejo. Under Schubert, her workout schedule jumped from six 4,000- to 6,000-yard workouts each week to nine of 9,000 to 12,000 meters, and on Aug. 5, at the Long Course Nationals, she stood next to Sterkel again; it had been more than a year since their first momentous meeting, and now they had another 50 to swim, this time 50 meters. Torres had swum a long course 50-meter world best of 25.69 in January, then had lost that mark to Holland's Annemarie Verstappen's 25.64, in July. Torres knew she had to get out fast, but a no-false-start rule made everyone overly cautious, and when the horn went off she was rocking back on her heels. By the time she lifted her head from the water and started to stroke, she was behind the leaders. Torres saw this on videotape after the race, but she claims to have glanced around and known it then. The question is: How? Eight lanes of swimmers, from eye level, resemble a school of feeding sharks. And many swimmers barely breathe in a 50. There would seem to be no time for purposeful thought, and yet, all the way down the pool Torres was intoning to herself "New record, new record."
The first thing she saw after touching the wall was Schubert doing a mad little dance. And then, high above, there were the numbers: 25.62, another world best.
Where do they come from—Torres's drive to win, her fast-twitch temperament? Her four older brothers would appear to be of significance. Torres started age-group swimming at eight, one month after Brad and Rick, now 18 and 19, respectively. But when they saw her first-place ribbons and considered their seconds and thirds, they took early retirement, Brad to become a surfer, Rick a volleyball player. Twenty-three-year-old Kirk was interested in horsemanship. Mike, 25, was no swimmer, but he was an avid tennis player, and he won a punt/pass/kick competition in West Los Angeles when he was eight. As for sister Lara, she finished seventh in the 50-yard free at last April's Junior Nationals West.
Their mother, Marylu, a Miss Rheingold finalist and a successful model in the '50s and '60s, was divorced from her husband, Ed, when Dara was eight. Two years later she married a tournament tennis player named Ed Kauder. At present Ed Torres is the owner of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. The 57-year-old Kauder is the second-ranked player in the country in his age group, and he says of his stepdaughter, "I was always playing in tournaments, so Dara got the idea of competition early. I would tell her, 'If you're runner-up, nobody knows who you are; you'll always feel like a loser if you haven't won.' "
But Torres was driven to excel before Kauder entered the household. As her mother says, "She always wanted the edge on everyone. At the dinner table she had to have the biggest portion. In the car she always wanted to be in the front seat. She was competitive from the day she was born."
Torres set her first national age-group record, 24.66 for 50 yards, when she was 12. One year later, while a seventh-grader at L.A.'s exclusive Westlake School, she won a "Most Likely to Break a Record in the Guinness Book" award. Last year, after her 25.69 in the 50, the school authorized a news release to be sent to the press. But it went out on the letterhead of a p.r. firm owned by the mother of a classmate, giving rise to a rumor that Torres was employing a personal publicist. A month later, TV's syndicated The Road to Los Angeles did a 15-minute feature on her career and assured its audience that she isn't "just another spoiled rich kid." Still, she does have her parents' 1979 burgundy Mercedes 300 TD station wagon, with the license plate LA SWIMR, on permanent loan. And she has spent most of her life in a house with nine bedrooms, 10½ baths and four 18-foot-high pillars out front—the Beverly Hills equivalent of Tara.
Mission Viejo is 60 miles away, so lately she has been attending Mission Viejo High School, where she's completing her junior year, and living with a local family, Flo and Mike Stutzman and their 10-year-old daughter, Heather, a Mission Viejo age-group swimmer. The Stutzmans have taught Torres how to iron shirts and have made sure that she adheres to her mother's rules, one being that she isn't allowed to date, though she is allowed to socialize in groups. Stutzman says of her, "She's never been pretentious, never Beverly Hills. She's just a loving, open kid who loves to talk."
One morning in late April, looking for what he called "a home pool advantage" come August, Schubert had his whole team practice at the University of Southern California, in the Olympic pool. Torres was in a lane with Heather Strang, who had finished third in the 100 free at this year's nationals in Indianapolis, and Diane Johnson, the '82 NCAA champion in the 50-yard free. Schubert first had them do an easy warmup of 600-meters freestyle, then five sets with the kickboard of 50 easy and 150 hard (Torres has a tendency to be lazy with her kicking). That was followed by 1650s—four each of free, back, breast and butterfly—and, finally, a freestyle "ladder," successive sprints of 50, 100, 150, 200, 250, 200, 150, 100 and 50 meters, with 20 seconds of rest after each one. As they started on the ladder, Schubert said, "Build with each one; a bit stronger with each one."
By the last rung Torres and friends had completed 3,650 meters of warmups. The main set would consist of nine diving sprints at maximum effort, three each at 125, 75 and 25 meters. Schubert walked up and down the deck, following the swimmers; after the first 125 he told Torres, "You're still using a broken-tempo kick."
"I know," she said, "but..." and she made a wobbling motion with her legs, as if about to collapse.
He spoke to her sternly: "This is where you've got to make yourself do it." But then he winked. "Better die now than, uh, later, right?"
After the second 125, Schubert told her, "Over the first 50 your kick was terrific. But in the second 50 it broke a little. Now I want you to attack the walls better. You stopped kicking going into them, and that slowed you down at both turns."
He was quiet during Torres's next few sprints. Finally, after the third 75, he was beaming. He said, "The last 25 of that one was perfect."
Torres didn't seem thrilled. "That's because I went out slowly," she said.
"Well, don't go out slowly," he said.
Back and forth they went, Schubert cajoling, Torres seeming a bit cranky. He said to a friend, "We have to judge how much endurance stuff we can do without getting her overtired. With distance kids, we want them to be tired. But with Dara, we don't want to ever enter the Valley of Fatigue. That's when training gets negative for her."
In January, at the U.S. Swimming International meet, Torres had contributed a 56-second 100-meter freestyle to the 400-medley relay, a personal best by .56. Schubert, a careful man, not given to hyperbole, had told Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times, "We're thinking of winning the hundred in Los Angeles."
But Torres has never made a Pan-Am or world championship team in an individual event, let alone the U.S. Olympic team. Assuming she does make it at the trials, she'll have to face Verstappen and her compatriot Conny Van Bentum, in the Olympics, and Torres's best 100 time is still far from the 54.79 world record held by East Germany's Barbara Krause. So now, at USC, when Schubert was asked, "How fast can Dara go?" he didn't answer right away. Finally, he said, "I think Dara has the potential of swimming the hundred free in fifty-four seconds."