Monday, November 19, 2007

Torres Is Getting Older, but Swimming Faster

Dara Torres, the fastest female swimmer in America, plunged toward the bottom of the pool, like a child scavenging for coins. She came up for a breath, grinning. The lanes next to hers pulsed with swimmers pushing themselves through 100- and 200-meter timed sprints, but Torres was under orders from her coach to rest, the better to let her 40-year-old body recover.

It was a Friday, the end of another unorthodox training week for Torres, a four-time Olympian who is doing less in the water to wring more results out of a swimming career that was supposed to have run dry by now.

Her day had begun just after dawn in the weight room, where she worked her legs until they quivered and her arms until they ached — without pressing a weight or lifting a dumbbell. The 90-minute workout was the first leg of her training triathlon. It was followed by 90 minutes of swimming and 60 minutes of stretching.

Torres’s training is cutting edge so that her personal pharmacy does not have to be. A nine-time Olympic medalist who made her first Olympic team in 1984, Torres is at a short-course meet in Berlin this weekend, representing the United States in the freestyle sprints in her last competition of the year. She has the 2008 Summer Games in her sights after winning the 100 freestyle and setting a United States record in the 50 freestyle at the national championships in August.

In a one-lap race, where personal bests are typically whittled by hundredths of a second, Torres’s progression is astounding. Her age adds to the intrigue. What she is doing would be akin to Roger Clemens’s throwing a fastball harder now, at 45, than he did 20 years ago or goaltender Ed Belfour’s coming out of retirement at 42 to post his career-best save percentage.

“I think what Dara’s doing is fantastic,” said Gary Hall Sr., who was 25 and considered ancient — his teammates nicknamed him the Old Man and the Sea — when he swam in his third Olympics in 1976. “It proves that we really don’t know what the peak age of performance is.”

For every person who marvels at Torres’s motor, there are others who wonder what kind of fuel she is putting in her tank. It is the nature of a sport that lost its squeaky-clean image long ago. Beginning in the late 1960s with East Germany’s state-supported doping program and continuing through the 1990s with a rash of failed drug tests by the Chinese, the pool has turned into a breeding ground for skeptics, suspicion and cynicism.

“Behind my back people are saying I must be using something,” Torres said. “I know it. I hear it.”

She has been tested for performance-enhancing drugs more than half a dozen times this year, and the results have been negative, said Mark Schubert, the national team’s coach and general manager. At Torres’s request, her blood is being drawn regularly so she can be tested for illegal substances like human growth hormone that cannot be detected in urine.

“My attitude is, bring it on,” Torres said. “Do what you have to do to prove I’m clean.”

Torres has ridden the wave of popular opinion from crest to crash. In 1994, she was the first athlete to appear alongside supermodels in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, her face instantly recognizable as belonging to the golden girl who graced the American 4x100 freestyle relay team that beat the big, bad East Germans at the 1992 Olympics and bettered their world record.

In 2000, when she returned to the sport after a six-year layoff and won five medals at the Sydney Olympics, Torres became the face of innuendo, her success grist for the rumor mill. The rumors troubled Michael Lohberg, the coach at Coral Springs Swim Club in Florida. While working with West German swimmers in the 1980s, Lohberg saw how destructive steroid use could be to the health of the users and the emotional well-being of their pursuers who were clean.

One swimmer he worked with was Birgit Schulz, an individual medley specialist who later became his wife. At the 1986 world championships, Schulz placed sixth in the 200 individual medley. Four of the finishers ahead of her were from Eastern bloc nations where steroid use was considered rampant.

Seeing her frustration crystallized Lohberg’s stance on performance-enhancing drugs: he did not condone them and would not coach anyone who used them.

In late 2005, while pregnant with her first child, Torres began swimming three or four times a week at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex, where Lohberg’s club is based. After giving birth to her daughter, Tessa Grace, in April 2006, Torres raced in two masters meets and posted times that were competitive with the world’s elite swimmers, emboldening her to try another comeback. She asked Lohberg if he would coach her, and he sat her down to have The Talk.

He asked Torres if she had ever used performance-enhancing drugs. “For myself, I needed to have this clear before we started anything,” Lohberg said.

Torres recalled, “I said, ‘Why do you ask that?’ and he said, ‘Because that’s what everybody was talking about on the deck in Sydney.’”

She assured Lohberg that she would never use drugs. After they began working together, he saw no reason to doubt her.

“Technically, she’s brilliant,” Lohberg said.

“And Dara wants to be perfect,” he added. “She’s very conscientious.”

People who know her say it is ludicrous to suspect Torres of doping. If she is guilty of anything, her friends say, it is of being a compulsive exerciser.

“I don’t think she has ever been out of shape a day in her life,” said Schubert, who coached Torres in the late 1980s. “I think that’s what makes this possible and conceivable.”

At the Olympic trials next June in Omaha, dozens will compete for two berths in Torres’s best events, the 50 and 100 freestyles. When Torres won her 14th and 15th national titles this summer, she became a feel-good story for baby boomers and a bad omen for their freestyle-sprinting progeny.

Rumors that she is doping are hurtful, Torres said, “but in another way it’s sort of a compliment.” It tells her that younger competitors perceive her not as a relic but as a real threat.

Torres works in the water five times a week, down from 10 to 12 water workouts in her teens and 20s.

“My body definitely takes longer to recover,” she said. “I have my good days when I feel like I’m 20, and then I have my days when I can’t lift my arms out of the water.”

The cost of being a middle-age champion can be steep, but she can afford it. Torres enlisted Bloomberg L.P., Toyota and Speedo as sponsors to help defray her training expenses. She estimated that she would spend about $100,000 this year on her support staff.

In addition to Lohberg, Torres employs a sprint coach, Chris Jackson; a strength and conditioning coach, Andy O’Brien, who also oversees her diet; two full-time personal stretchers, Steve Sierra and Anne Tierney; a physical therapist; a masseuse; and a nanny. She also leans heavily on her boyfriend, David Hoffman, an obstetrician who is Tessa’s father.

Most days, Sierra and Tierney are waiting for Torres at her suburban Fort Lauderdale home when she is finished swimming. They twist and pull her torso and limbs in a vigorous resistance stretching routine that eases her body’s recovery by flushing out toxins and lactic acid.

“People can say I’m on drugs or whatever, but they are really my secret weapon,” Torres said, referring to Sierra’s and Tierney’s torturous routine.

O’Brien, who is on the staff of the N.H.L.’s Florida Panthers, said, “Dara’s really gone a step ahead of other athletes in terms of taking care of her body.”

He began working with Torres last November, introducing her to an ever-evolving regimen that encompasses Swiss balls, medicine balls, bands and resistance cables. The goal of her four 90-minute strength sessions each week is to stimulate her nervous system and strengthen her core muscles through a variety of multijoint movements.

The results have been striking. Torres’s muscles have grown longer and leaner, with the exception of those in her back and shoulders, which have thickened. She carries 150 pounds on her 6-foot frame, down from 160 in 2000. Her reaction time off the blocks has improved, and she is more efficient in the water.

“Over all, she got a lot fitter,” Lohberg said, adding, “and she’s more balanced in the water.”

One of O’Brien’s longtime clients is Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star center. For all their differences, the 20-year-old Crosby and Torres are remarkably alike, O’Brien said. Crosby becomes nervous when he is given a new exercise or task to complete because he does not want to fail.

“Dara’s the same way,” O’Brien said as he watched her complete a drill on the Swiss ball. “Even if it’s just her and a Swiss ball, there’s almost a little nervous energy before she tries something new.”

He added, “Dara reminds me of the student who’s worried she’s going to fail the test and then gets a 100.”

Days before leaving for Berlin, Torres asked Lohberg to critique her flip turn. Never mind that she has done hundreds of thousands of turns over the years. In Torres’s mind, there is always room for improvement. Yesterday in Berlin, she twice lowered the United States record in the 50 freestyle on a course that is rarely contested here, venturing further into uncharted waters.

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