What if someone told you that the fastest female swimmer in the United States isn't some fresh-faced prodigy just entering her prime? What if it weren't someone training six hours a day, eating, breathing and living the sport?
What if, instead, the fastest American happened to be a 41-year-old mom coming back from shoulder surgery? A 41-year-old mom who already retired once? What if, against logic and odds, you heard that she has been getting faster as she has grown older? What if she went into the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., next week with a chance to make her fifth Olympic team, but her first since 2000?
Would you be suspicious? Skeptical? Would you think she was doping or cheating?
Go ahead and be cynical. Dara Torres doesn't mind. You can say whatever you like. She doesn't feel that she has to prove anything to you, or anyone else. She's going to let the facts speak for themselves.
And right now the facts say she's one of the fastest freestyle swimmers in the world at 41, and every drug test she has taken has come back clean. Instead of waiting for accusations, she's one of the few athletes to take an active approach to drug testing. She has volunteered to give extra urine samples, has given blood to be frozen so that it can be tested for human growth hormone in the future and even volunteered her DNA if anyone wants it.
"To me, it's a compliment," Torres says of the whispers that she must be using performance-enhancing drugs. "I know I'm not taking anything. The people I work with know I'm not taking anything. My family and friends know I'm not taking anything. For them to say I am, it's almost a compliment. It means I'm doing something out of the ordinary."
9 Olympic medals
Although those who tune into the U.S. trials next week will probably do so hoping to get their first televised look at Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff - the two Baltimore-area swimmers expected to be the stars of the Beijing Olympics - Torres might have the most compelling story in Omaha. If she makes the team, it will be her fifth Olympics, the most of any American swimmer in history. She owns nine Olympic medals and swam in her first Olympics - the 1984 Games in Los Angeles - before Phelps and Hoff were born.
"In 2000, we would always joke that she was like a mom to me," Phelps says. "That was like seven years ago. To do what she's doing now is amazing. I can guarantee you won't see me swimming when I'm 40."
The most amazing aspect of Torres' story might be that it happened almost by accident.
Torres thought she was finished with competitive swimming after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when she won five medals after a six-year layoff. She had been swimming for so long that just the smell of chlorine made her feel that she needed to get away from the pool.
But two years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Tessa, swimming turned out to be the only way she felt comfortable staying in shape. A friend suggested that she join the Masters swim program at Coral Springs Swim Club in Florida, not far from her home in Parkland, Fla.
Torres showed up unannounced at the facility, not sure what to expect.
"I went into the office to talk to the secretary, and I said to her, `I'd like to see what programs you have for swimming,' " Torres says. "I didn't tell her who I was. She said, `What level do you think you can swim?' I said, `Well, I don't know, either with the kids or the masters.' And she looks at me like I was nuts when I said the kids. She says: `Tell you what, why don't you write down if you've swum in the past. Have you swum in the past?' "
It's hard for Torres to keep from smirking when she tells this story.
"Yes," Torres told the woman. "I've swam a little in the past."
Well, why don't you write down what you've done, the secretary said. I'll give it to the coach and he can decide whether you can be a part of the program.
"So I wrote down: four-time Olympian, nine Olympic medals, world championships, Pan Am games, all that," Torres says. "I folded it because I didn't want to embarrass her. I walked out, and I kind of smiled. Sure enough, a couple hours later, Michael [Lohberg] calls me, and he was laughing."
Lohberg, who coached Olympic swimmers in West Germany in the 1980s and now heads the program at Coral Springs, didn't know what to expect from Torres. At least at first. He figured she just wanted to stay fit during her pregnancy, and that was fine with him. Torres even swam and lifted weights the day she gave birth to Tessa.
"I knew when I was going to deliver, that I was going to go into the hospital that night," Torres says. "I was just sitting around waiting, and I was like, `I'm kind of bored. I just want to go get a workout in before I do this.' I knew it was going to be a little while before I could start working out again."