“I think this performance ranks up there with the biggest performances in sports ever … It puts Dara in the ranks of Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods.” — Michael Lohberg, Torres’ coach
Dara Torres was born in Los Angeles, California, on April 15, 1967, and grew up in Beverly Hills, California, the fifth of six children and the older of two girls. As a seven-year-old, she joined her older brothers at the community YMCA for swimming practice; afterward, she signed up for the swimming club in Culver City to train. At 14, she won the national open championship in the 50-yard freestyle by defeating the then-current champion, Jill Sterkel*, a college junior.
She attended the Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake School), and competed for their swim team under Coach Darlene Bible from the seventh grade through her sophomore year in high school. During her 1983–84 high school junior year, she left home to swim for the Mission Viejo Nadadores in Mission Viejo, California, while training for her first Olympics under Coach Mark Schubert. After the 1984 Olympics, Torres returned to the Westlake School to graduate in 1985.
Dara is a 12-time Olympic medalist (four gold, four silver, four bronze), and former world record-holder in three events. She is the first swimmer to represent the United States in five Olympic Games (Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Beijing 2008 Olympic Games), and at age 41, the oldest swimmer to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team. She won at least one medal in each of the five Olympics in which she competed, making her one of only a handful of Olympians to earn medals in five different Games. Torres’ 12 Olympic medals tied the all-time medal record for a female Olympic swimmer set by fellow American Jenny Thompson in 2004; American Natalie Coughlin subsequently equaled the record in 2012.
International swimming career
At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Dara Torres was a member of the U.S. women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay team, earning a gold medal in the event final. She was just 17 years old, and had not yet enrolled in college when she won her first Olympic medal. Although Torres burst onto the international swimming stage at a young age, her career was most notable for its incredible longevity.
For the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Torres earned a bronze medal for swimming in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. Individually, Torres also placed seventh in the final of the 100-meter freestyle event.
Torres qualified for the U.S. Olympic women’s team in a single event for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. She swam the second leg of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay and earned a gold medal for her efforts.
First comeback: 2000 Olympics
After seven years out of competitive swimming, Torres came out of retirement at age 33 to become the oldest woman to win an Olympic swimming medal. She began to train for an Olympic comeback in 1999 under the guidance of Coach Richard Quick.
She won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Although she was the oldest member of the U.S. Olympic swim team, she won more medals (five) than any other U.S. team member.
Second comeback: 2008 Olympics
On August 1, 2007, at age 40, Torres won the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Then she set a new American record in the 50-meter freestyle of 24.53 seconds, breaking her own record of 24.63 seconds set at the 2000 Summer Olympics. She lowered her initial American record by 1.62 seconds. Torres has broken or lowered her own American record in the 50-meter freestyle 10 times, which is the most by any American swimmer in any event.
At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, she qualified for the event finals in the 50-meter freestyle and broke the American record with a time of 24.38 seconds in the semifinal. In the 50-meter finals, she broke that record for the ninth time, setting it at 24.25 seconds and winning the top American women’s spot in the event. Torres also qualified in the 100-meter freestyle, but later withdrew from the individual 100-meter freestyle event to focus her efforts on the 50-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter relay events.
Torres qualified for a spot in the Olympic Games in 2008 at the age of 41, a first for an American female swimmer. She became the oldest U.S. Olympic swimmer in history and the first American swimmer to appear in five Olympic Games. Having given birth two years earlier, her Olympic teammates jokingly referred to her as “Mom.”
Torres captured three silver medals. Michael Lohberg, Torres’ coach, when discussing her winning three Olympic silver medals at the age of 41 said, “I think this performance ranks up there with the biggest performances in sports ever … It puts Dara in the ranks of Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. What she has done is really not measurable.”
Torres says, “After I got out of college I was someone who loved to do extra. My mentality was the more you do, the better you do. Starting my second to last Olympics, in 2000, it all changed. I had a hard Friday practice once and my coach told me ‘go home, go to a movie if you want, but you’re doing absolutely nothing until Monday.’ “I thought that was going to kill me. But when I came back Monday I had one of the best workouts ever.
“So, by the time I was getting ready for Beijing 2008, I knew I couldn’t do just what everyone else was doing. I was in my late thirties but got my head around recovery being different (for older athletes). You have to listen to your body.”
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Torres won a silver medal as the anchor swimmer of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. It was the fifth time in five tries she earned an Olympic medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. With the American relay team’s second-place finish, she became the oldest swimmer to win a medal in Olympic history, surpassing British swimmer William Robinson, who was 38 at the time of the 1908 Summer Olympics.
Also at the 2008 Olympics she won the silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle, finishing in a new American record time of 24.07 seconds, one one-hundredth (0.01) of a second behind the winner. Her second-place time was a new American record and 0.18 of a second faster than she swam at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Thirty-five minutes later, she won another silver medal swimming the freestyle anchor leg in the 4×100-meter medley relay. Her split on the 4×100 medley relay (52.27 seconds) was the fastest 100-meter freestyle split in relay history. The American record for the women’s 100-meter freestyle as an individual event was 53.39 seconds as of August 2008, making Torres’ time more than a full second faster.
Aftermath and final retirement
“There are a lot of middle-aged women and men I know that contacted me, emailed or stopped me in the street to tell me that I am an inspiration to them and (they) are now doing things that they thought they couldn’t do,” Torres said.
Her memoir, Age is Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life, became a top-selling business book upon its publication. “Age is really just a number and I’m hoping that my age paves the way for other athletes, who maybe think they are too old to do something, to get back in or continue in the sport.” Dara’s journey has inspired millions of women to pursue their dreams, she embodies the “Yes I Can!” approach to life.
At the U.S. National Championships in 2009, Torres won the 50-meter freestyle with the fourth-best time in the world for the year (24.42), and she also placed in the 50-meter butterfly, qualifying her to compete in those events at the 2009 World Championships. This was the first time since 1986 that Torres competed in the World Championships; she placed eighth in the 50-meter freestyle and she did not advance beyond the qualifying heats in the 50-meter butterfly.
Following reconstructive surgery of one of her knees, she began training with the goal of competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics. At the 2012 United States Olympic Trials, she placed fourth in the finals of the 50-meter freestyle, 0.32 of a second behind the winner, Jessica Hardy, and 0.09 of a second behind the second qualifier, Kara Lynn Joyce. Only the top-two finishers in each trials event qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, and as a result, Torres concluded her Olympic career. After the 2012 Trials, Torres announced her retirement from competitive swimming.
Life outside swimming
*Jill Sterkel was on the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 when the Germans [systematically and state-sponsored] were given anabolic steroids. Jill, along with Shirley Babashoff, Kim Peyton [Portland, Oregon’s swimmer] and Wendy Boglioli won the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay against great odds from the doped German girls. The 1976 US Olympic girls’ swim team, was the greatest US Olympic team in the world. They were cheated out of gold medals by those who were illegally doped. The documentary describing that Olympics can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J6EJNSNKjw.