Not alone in the pool

OTHER VOICES

On Dara Torres

Swimmer feels her late father with her, as he was years ago

August 16, 2008|By Mike Downey | Mike Downey,Chicago Tribune

BEIJING - Dara Torres was born on April 15, 1967, two weeks before a blessed event was held in Las Vegas at the Aladdin Hotel, the wedding of singer Elvis Presley and his bride, Priscilla.

Dara's father, Eddie Torres, bought the Aladdin (in a partnership with Wayne Newton) 13 years later. By then, his daughter the swim prodigy was a fixture in the expensive pools of Beverly Hills, including the one in the Torres family's sprawling 10-bath home there.

He meant a great deal to Dara way back then. He still does.

She invokes his name on her Web site to this day, on the verge of unprecedented Olympic greatness, saying, "I look deep inside my soul and wonder what my father would tell me."

She thought of her dad, she said, in Omaha, Neb., last month when the 41-year-old became our oldest swimming Olympian ever.

"I was feeling him with me in that race," Dara said, adding that she later tried to avert her gaze because those drops spilling down her cheeks were not from the pool. Simply the thought of her late father made her cry.

And the nerves are still there for her.

When she emerged from Friday night's prelims at the Water Cube in the 50-meter freestyle, which was the first test in Beijing for this queen mother of the U.S. swim team, Torres grinned sheepishly after the race and confessed, "I had knots in my stomach all morning."

The outside of her stomach you've seen, this Greek-goddess midsection of hers, a torso to die for with abs that ripple like the armor of Batman's suit.

A 16-year-old, Cate Campbell, actually swam faster than Torres, who was winning medals at Olympic Games before the young Australian was born.

"She's an amazing woman," Campbell said. "I'm not going to be swimming when I'm 40. No way."

Torres was just like her once.

She was a teenager and the 1984 Olympics were being staged in Los Angeles, her hometown. Dara already had been a competitive swimmer at 8, broken a world record at 14 and made a name for herself at Westlake School for Girls, an academy established in 1904 with a school credo that goes like this: Possunt Quia Posse Videntur ("They can because they think they can.")

But back in 1984, it was a young Dara Torres who caught the world's eye by winning with a gold medal at a tender age.

She had skill, dedication and a lean body that would ultimately grow to be 6 feet long. She also had something that she kept well hidden.

Stage fright.

"I freaked out," Torres admitted of her original Olympic experience, when her first leg of the U.S. team's 400-meter freestyle relay was so poor, it nearly led to her being replaced.

She summoned up her courage and came through in the end, joining Jenna Johnson, Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead to win the gold medal by nearly a full second over the runners-up from Holland.

Her dad was so proud.

He came to Sydney to watch her that year when Dara took a bronze medal in both the 50 and 100 freestyles.

That figured to be the end of her era as an Olympian, but she fooled everybody.

Going for broke was a gamble she felt she had to take, something her father, as a hotel and casino owner, could appreciate. She called him the "most influential person" in her life and praised his dedication and hard work, a couple of attributes that explain her own presence here in Beijing. He was taken by colon cancer in 2000.

She retains a childlike enthusiasm, describing these Olympics as "awesome in every way!"

No one at 41 should be expected to go for gold medals, or ones of any other hue.

Dara Torres can. She can because she thinks she can.

Mike Downey writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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