Pedal to the medal

The first US woman to compete in five Olympics started her competitive sports life in Jewish swim meets.

woman swimming 88 (photo credit: )
woman swimming 88
(photo credit: )
Dara Torres stands alone as the first American woman to compete in five Olympic Games, so people tend to put her on a pedestal, but Torres is as down-to-earth as they come. You might be surprised, but she views herself as a working mother, who collects dust, or tarnish - but in her case it is on gold medals. She's simply not interested in her past accomplishments, because she is too busy looking toward the future. Torres started swimming when she was seven years old. Competitive by nature, having four older brothers certainly did not hurt in the way of keeping her on her toes. Early on she felt a connection to the water, and throughout her Olympic experiences, it kept calling her back. In her Olympic career, she has won 12 medals, four gold, four silver and four bronze. "I'm still improving; I just go and never stop. Twice I took a break from swimming; I felt I was done, really done. I didn't think I would be back, but I missed the pool. Both times I came back to swimming. I made the decision and had a goal; I wanted to make the Olympics." Torres swam in Jewish swim meets when she was growing up, and in 2005 she was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. She has also spent time in Israel. "I've been to Israel once, I love it. My second husband asked me to marry him in Israel - and then we climbed Masada." While that marriage did not last, Torres found love again with her partner David Hoffman, a reproductive endocrinologist who is the father of her daughter, Tessa. Torres, who is unstoppable, was back in the pool three weeks after Tessa was born, competing at a masters level swim meet. At the time, she had no thoughts of swimming competitively, she just wanted to get back into the water. A fierce competitor, Torres's sense of fairness and good sportsmanship shines as brightly as any of her Olympic medals. During the Beijing Olympics, she had her big moment on hand where she was competing in the 50 meter individual freestyle race. Selflessly, she stopped the race, so she could alert the judges that one of her competitors had a swimsuit malfunction and needed time to change into a new suit. WHEN ASKED why she halted the race when no one else made a move, she explained, "I didn't think. I just did. She was in trouble and I was just trying to do the right thing. I also want to compete against the best - it wouldn't be right if she was not in the race, as she was ranked third in the world and I was ranked fifth. It did not affect my swimming at all - if anything it kept my mind off being so nervous. It was a motherly instinct that came out of me." Motherly instinct or not, it was a shining example of a competitor who goes above and beyond and makes her country proud, not only by winning medals, but by the unlikely act of going the extra mile to help a competitor. Her nonstop energy was evident in our interview, and Torres explained how sometimes her competitiveness spills over into her regular life. "I have always been competitive, so it's nothing new. It just happens, it's my nature, it's in the genes." There is no doubt that winning Olympic medals at any age is spectacular, but 41-year-old Torres competed against people half her age and beat them. Many see her accomplishments as truly inspirational. While she does not view herself as a role model, she views the concept as positive. "Inspiring people, while it's not my intention, but if comes with what I do and if it helps people to go for their dreams and not think they are too old. it's an added bonus." When asked who she found inspirational, she said, "My parents inspire me, but I also think inspiration comes from within." I'm a recreational swimmer myself who sometimes daydreams and writes stories in my head instead of focusing on my stroke. I wondered what went through Torres's mind at practice and competitions, and was surprised by her answer. "It could be what I need to buy at the grocery store. In college it was my homework assignments or it could be a song I heard on the radio that goes over and over in my head. At meets I have no idea; I never remember what I am thinking. It's only when my coach says I need to do things a certain way, then I focus on what I need to change." Torres, who is training to go to the World Championships, has no plans for yet another Olympic Games. "I take it day by day. I'm training for worlds and don't have a set challenge other than trying to be a good mother. I look at my training as I am a working mother and am always trying to balance having a career and my home life." That said, Torres has quit the sport twice before and come back to unprecedented success, so with her upbeat, positive and aggressive attitude, nothing is out of the question, except maybe to dust off those gold, silver and bronze medals.