AFTER FIVEOLYMPICS and a pile of medals, you'd think 41-year-old Dara Torres would knoweverything there is to know about preparing for a race. Since coming out ofretirement for the third time two years ago, she had perfected her starts,refined her stroke and hired a small army of people to coach, tone, stretch andstrengthen her. She had considered every detail—except, perhaps, this one: Youshould never trim your nails the night before an Olympic event. The length of asingle fingernail clipping might have been all that separated Torres from agold medal in the women's 50 freestyle at the Water Cube in Beijing as she lostto Germany's Britta Steffen by one hundredth of a second on Sunday.
Torres had anear-perfect start and led most of the way in the one-lap sprint, but she wasout-touched at the wall by Steffen, who finished in an Olympic-record time of24.06. Though an individual gold would have been a first for Torres, a silver(her best in a solo event) was hardly less remarkable. It was the first suchOlympic swimming medal won by any woman over the age of 33—and the 33-year-oldwho won a medal was Torres, back in 2000. She also set an American record witha time of 24.07. "I don't like to lose," she said Sunday, "but Ihave to keep it in perspective. A year ago I didn't think I'd be going for thegold."
Torres didn't getmuch time to bask in the limelight or ponder the might-have-beens. Less thantwo minutes after hurriedly leaving the 50-free medal ceremony, she was back onthe pool deck in cap and goggles to anchor the 4√ó100 medley relay. Afterhitting the water .87 of a second behind Australia's Libby Trickett on thefreestyle leg, Torres closed the gap but couldn't quite catch the 23-year-oldTrickett as the Australians crushed their own world record by more than threeseconds. As the Aussies celebrated, Torres's achievement in the race wasmomentarily overlooked: Her time of 52.27 was the fastest split ever in awomen's medley relay.
During a weekwhen Michael Phelps's historic eight gold medals absorbed most of theconsiderable spotlight shining on the swimming competition in Beijing, Torres'saccomplishments—three silver medals in three events (the 4√ó100 free and medleyrelays and the 50 free) and personal bests all around—were overshadowed but noless astonishing. While Phelps was being compared with the greatest Olympiansof all time, no one could find the right description for Torres's feats. Isthere another world-class athlete (a mother, no less) in such a physicallydemanding sport who has performed not just well, but also at his or her bestafter 40? "I don't have a category for that," says U.S. men's coachEddie Reese. "I think [only] Ripley's has a category for that."
TORRES WAS NOTthe only swimmer not named Phelps who turned in a notable performance for theU.S. Jason Lezak, the hero of the men's 4√ó100 free relay—his blistering anchorleg caught France's Alain Bernard at the wall and kept Phelps's quest for eightgolds alive—followed that performance with a bronze in the 100 free, his firstindividual medal in three Olympics, and another clutch anchor leg, in the 4√ó100medley relay, when he held off Australia's surging Eamon Sullivan to clinchPhelps's final gold medal. Ryan Lochte denied teammate Aaron Peirsol a chanceto become the first swimmer in 24 years to repeat as Olympic champion in boththe 100 and 200 backstrokes when he beat Peirsol in the 200 back inworld-record time. Meanwhile, Natalie Coughlin won six medals, including a goldin the 100 back, bringing her career total to 11, just one shy of the totals ofTorres and former teammate Jenny Thompson.
A few Olympicrookies made appearances on the medal stand too: Rebecca Soni, a communicationsmajor at USC, didn't make the team in the 100 breaststroke (she finished fourthat the Olympic trials), yet she was asked to swim it in Beijing in place ofJessica Hardy, who withdrew from the team on Aug. 1 after testing positive fora banned substance. Soni surprised even herself by winning a silver medal, thenlater added a gold in the 200 breaststroke, in which she beat heavily favoredLeisel Jones of Australia with a world-record time of 2:20.22.
The women's 200breaststroke was just one of 22 events in which world records fell at the WaterCube last week. U.S. national team director Mark Schubert had expected therecord books to be shredded in Beijing—before the Games he said he thoughtevery record could fall—but even he was stunned by the speed and depth of theOlympic field. "It was way faster than we expected," he says. "Thiswas the toughest swim meet ever."
As Torres shonein that hypercompetitive arena, part of her attention was elsewhere. During theteam's posttrials training camp at Stanford in July, Michael Lohberg, the58-year-old coach who had been shepherding Torres through what he has describedas her "crazy" quest, learned he had aplastic anemia, a rare andlife-threatening blood disorder. The news shattered Torres. She remained inconstant contact with Lohberg and met with a sports psychologist "to helpme just deal with the emotions," she says.
Speaking onSunday from his hospital room in Bethesda, Md., where he was in stablecondition and receiving blood transfusions, Lohberg—whom Torres called soonafter her final event—says he's proud she maintained her focus. "Shecouldn't have raced better," he says. "She said, 'I'm pissed [about notwinning a gold].' She hates to lose, but eventually I think she'll realize itwas a phenomenal performance."
Torres creditsher much younger teammates for helping keep her grounded and making her laugh.At the team's final training camp in Singapore, most of the skits performed bythe rookies mocked Torres. They touched on Torres's trademarks—her ever-presentheadband, BlackBerry, massage therapists and rolling bag, which she pullsaround "like an old lady," she admits.
But Torres was asmuch an object of awe as teasing among her teammates. "What she's doing isincredible," says Lezak, "and I thought what I've done at 32 was prettygood."
History, and thedepth in U.S. swimming, suggest that the U.S. Olympic team of 2012 will be amix of this team's still-young stars—like Phelps, 23; Lochte, 24; Katie Hoff,19; and Coughlin, who turns 26 this week—as well as a flock of new faces. ButTorres's example will no doubt inspire others to reconsider retirement or plotout a longer arc for their careers. Kara Lynn Joyce, a 22-year-old who finishedhalf a second behind Torres in the 50 free, didn't seem disappointed to lose tosomeone who is old enough to be her mother. "It gives me hope for another20 years," she says.
"I don't have a category for [what Torres hasdone]," says Reese. "I think only RIPLEY'S DOES."
Photograph by John Biever
SECOND ACT Torres broke the American record in the 50-meter freestyle sprint but still lost by the slimmest of margins.
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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
DOUBLING BACK In the 100-meter backstroke Coughlin took gold for the women—one of her six medals—and Lochte (right) set a world record for the men.
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