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Age is Only a Number for Olympic Hopeful, Role-Model Dara Torres

Swimmer Dara Torres of the United States has tasted Olympic victory. But this year, the 41-year-old mother is carrying more than aspirations for a gold medal on her shoulders - she is carrying the hopes of a generation of athletes and fans. Torres won her first Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles 24 years ago. Now she is the first swimmer to qualify for five Olympics. As VOA's David Byrd reports, Torres has made a remarkable comeback and hopes to add to her collection of nine Olympic medals.

Dara Torres earned her first Olympic gold medal in 1984 as part of the U.S. 4x100 meter relay team. At only 17 years old, Torres swam her leg in a personal best of 55.92 seconds, but described the whole experience as "scary."

The Beverly Hills, California native attended the University of Florida in 1985 where she earned 28 National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming awards. However, it was there that Torres also began a battle with the eating disorder bulimia. It was an affliction that would haunt her for the next seven years.

At the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, Torres finished seventh in the women's 100-meter freestyle race. But she earned a silver and a bronze medal in the relays. Once she was out of college, Torres decided to retire from the pool, but the pull of competition was too great. She made the 1992 team and won a gold in the freestyle relay. She also was able to win her battle with bulimia.

Bye bye bulimia, hello glamorous life

During the next few years Torres lived a glamorous life - including being the first athlete to model in the annual Sports Illustrated magazine swimsuit issue. She worked as a spokesperson for the Reebok sporting goods company at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

But by 1999, the old competitive urges had come back and Torres moved to California to train. By the time of the Sydney Games, Torres had swum the 50-meter freestyle in a time that beat her world record time 15 years earlier. In Sydney, Torres won three individual bronze medals - in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly. She won two gold medals in relay races as well. At age 33, Torres said she had swum her last Olympic race.

Baby brings benefits

But now, Dara Torres says that she could not stay away from the pool - even when she was pregnant with her daughter Tessa.

"I got back into swimming when I was pregnant just for exercise," she explained. "And I started swimming swim meets just for fun. And I went to Masters world championships and there were about 5,000 people there. And about 5,000 of them came up to me and said, 'oh, it would be great to have a 40-year-old in the Olympics!' And that got my wheels turning and that was it; I was toast [convinced]."

In July, Torres won both the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle races at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska. She set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle, affectionately known as "the splash and dash." Torres says that she was stunned to achieve what she did at 41 and credits her support staff and belief in herself for helping her reach the Olympics again.

"I have a great support staff," she noted. "I am surrounded by wonderful people who know what they are doing. And I really work on my recovery, and I believe. And I think that is the biggest thing, is mentally to believe that you can do it. You know, the water does not know what age you are when you jump in so, you know, why not?"

It's all about teamwork

Part of her training staff includes working with Andy O'Brien, the strength coach of the Florida Panthers ice hockey team. She uses lighter weight than she did when she was younger, and her longer, chiseled physique shows the result of her work. Torres does weight training for 60 to 90 minutes four times a week.

After her strength workouts, Torres works with trainers Anne Tierney and Steve Sierra doing what is called resistance stretching, which she calls her secret weapon. But her Olympic preparation does not come cheaply - Torres spends more than $100,000 a year on her support staff - money that comes from endorsements with Speedo, Toyota and other sponsors.

Doping? forget about it!

Torres's success in the pool has led some to accuse her of using performance-enhancing drugs. But to counteract those accusations, the swimmer went to Travis Tygart, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head, and challenged the doping control body to test her.

"I have been taking a proactive approach," she said. "I went to USADA and met to the CEO there and said 'hey, people are talking about me. They can't believe I am doing this. I am an open book. DNA test me, blood test me, urine test me, do whatever you want. I want to show people I am clean.' So if anyone says it now - I mean I am being blood tested and urine tested - I just take it as a compliment."

Bittersweet victory

Ironically, Dara Torres might also have benefitted from giving birth to her daughter Tessa. The hormonal changes associated with pregnancy have made her more flexible, and that benefits her turns and her stroke in the pool. But Torres has suffered a setback just prior to the games - her longtime coach Michael Lohberg has been diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disorder that causes the bone marrow to shut down and new red blood cells are not produced.

As of this report, Lohberg is undergoing treatment at the National Institutes of Health outside Washington, DC. Whether he will be able to travel to Beijing remains doubtful.

But Dara Torres says her coach is not her only motivator. The swimmer knows she is a role model for other women and hopes her success in the pool will show others that they do not have to put off their dreams just because of age.