To me, Dara Torres represents everything that sports should be. She's competitive, dignified, tough, smart, independent, clean, and innovative. She's puts herself out as a role model but not as a corporate prop, or a brand, or a reality show, or some artificial construct existing just to make more money. She does have a new book out on fitness... but really I just used that an excuse for me to talk to her again. Because I think she should be heard more and often. Here, as usual, she does not disappoint.
There was a moment at the Beijing Olympics that, I thought, said a lot about you. I forget what race it was, but all the swimmers were lining up at the blocks and one swimmer you were to swim against wasn't ready for some reason and you were the only one who noticed and let the officials know. What happened there?
It was the semi-finals of the 50. Theresa Ulsamer from Sweden was second fastest girl in the world. We were hanging out backstage in the ready room, where you must be 20 minutes before a race or you are disqualified. Right before we march out to the pool her suit rips. She asked me to help her zip it back up. I don't think the other girls knew what was going on. They just were focused, not paying attention, didn't care -- I don't know. But it was just me and Theresa and I was like "Yeah, I'll help." So I helped her. And just as we were marching out her suit ripped again. I knew she couldn't swim like that. Usually the swimsuit manufacturers are standing by in case that happens. I waited as long as I could for them to announce lanes and as they were announcing the swimmers I tried inconspicuously to walk over to the officials. I let them know the deal and that she was in the ready room and could they wait for her. I was just doing what I would want someone to do for me in the same situation. Even though she was number two in the world, I didn't think it was fair for a suit malfunction to change her whole life and miss the event.
But that's the thing. You are focused. You are competitive. But unlike the other swimmers, how come you cared and everyone else was willing to let her go down?
I would like to think maybe they weren't paying attention to what was going on. But look, I'm a mom. I'm in my forties. There's a little more maturity here. I was brought up that way. It was just the right thing to do. People mostly just aren't paying attention.
What do you make of the sex abuse scandal in USA swimming?
It's very sad. You know, you go to your workouts, you do your work and you don't realize stuff like that is going on until someone speaks up about it. It takes a courageous person to come out and finally tell what's happening. Then other people start to come out and say it's happened to them. In that way it's a good thing. It'll get people who are abusing swimmers out of the sport and away from children.
How surprised were you to hear about it?
I was totally surprised. I had no idea. When I saw the story my jaw was on the ground. I could not believe it. I felt so bad for those kids. But now they're doing something about it.
You have a new book out; Gold Medal Fitness: A Revolutionary 5-Week Program (Broadway Books). In it there is a list of "Dara's Tips" one which states "Sleep Burns Fat. Recent research has shown that getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night boosts the metabolism and burns fat." My friend Todd from Philly sleeps about 14 hours a day. How come he's not in better shape?
Well, what else does he do during the day? I don't even know until the research was done that that was their case. If I don't get eight hours of sleep I don't function. I'm not the same person. If I don't get it at night, I take a cat nap in the day. People don't realize sleep helps your metabolism, but it doesn't mean that if you sleep 23 hours a day you'll lose weight.
With your extraordinary comeback at age 41, you drew attention for the way you have taken care of yourself in forties, after a baby. Are these health tips for people at any age and any stage in life?
The thing I realized doing this book is that it's easier for me to look the way I look because I do this for a living. This book is geared toward anyone. I'm a single mom. I work. I train. I take care of my daughter. So when you're a busy parent you want simplicity in your life. I tried to make it as simplistic as possible to follow. There's pictures in there to show exactly how to do the exercises. The writing is clear. There's a meal plan that's simple to follow and doesn't make you stay in the kitchen for hours on end.
I remember when you first started swimming you were all about muscle. Now you've gone in a very different direction and your success has raised eyebrows. How much do you see professional swimmers copying your new regimen?
It's just different. It's innovative. It's not old school. Trust me I've been doing this for so many years. I used to do old school training. I used to go into the weight room and lift as much as I could because I thought that meant I would be the stronger in the pool. But that's not how it works now. The strength training exercises I have in my book are about using the core, about using body weight, not about doing one specific exercise for one specific muscle. Any sport you do you use like three different planes. When my strength coach saw me swim for the first time he was like "Wow she uses like every muscle so I'm going to incorporate that into her training. I don't want her to do one specific exercise. I want her to work all different muscles at once in each exercise." That theory also applies to the everyday person. Even when you are just walking, you're not just using one muscle.
You've even volunteered to do extra drug tests so nobody can question that you're for real.
You know, I've retired for the past year. I could've easily put that down as my status and not gotten drug tested all year. I mean, trust me, they're at my house 7am yesterday morning taking four vials of blood and doing urine tests and I'm trying to deal with my puppy and four year old daughter who just woke up. It would be much easier to blow it off for the year and wait until I got back in the pool but people would say, well, "What did she do in that year off?" I am a huge advocate of drug testing. I've been very open saying test me any way you want. I don't understand why it's okay for someone like Nolan Ryan to pitch a no hitter at 43 or Jack Nicklaus winning a Master's at 46, but a 41-year old mom can't get a world record when she was world record holder at 15 years old. It's not like it's something new that I'm doing. It's just that I've been able to maintain. It's unfortunate that in this day and age that because of previous athlete's wrongdoing, you are guilty until proven innocent. So, when I decided to make this comeback, from day one I took a pro-active approach -- totally open to any drug testing they want to do because I want to show this is really me doing this. I want to set an example for when my daughter gets older, for her to know I did this the right way.
I'm so happy you said what you said the way you said it because there's a case in Olympic swimming that still bothers me. It's a huge injustice and I'd like to hear what you think about it. It's the case of Shirley Babashoff. She spoke out at 1976 games about East German doping, was right about it, and the press shamefully cast her as the villain, calling her "Surly Shirley." Worse than this, of all the Olympians who have had gold metals given to them that were stripped from proven drug cheats, Babashoff has never been given hers despite her requests for the IOC to do so. She finished second in 5 races in '76 to admitted dopers. What will we finally do about Shirley Babashoff?
I don't know why nothing been done yet. She deserves to get what she deserves to get, which was gold medals. Hopefully today some resolution will come. Because it stinks. I was young when the East Germans were around and I had to compete against them. You knew they were doing something. Their voices were deep. Their jaws were built differently. It was obvious, but you really couldn't say anything because their was no drug testing. [Babashoff] was at least strong enough to make a stand.
And because of it she was banished. In '76 (not to mention her silvers in '72) she had 5 silver medals which should have been gold. She would've been an American hero, front of the Wheaties box and today be considered someone to listen to all the time about Olympics and Olympic swimming. How can we ever repay her. I don't understand why she has never been given her golds when other have?
You'd have to ask USA swimming or the Olympic committee. I don't know. It's still not the same -- even if she gets the medals -- it's not the same as actually winning them at that point in time. It sucks. It sucks that there's not an answer. It sucks that cheaters are ahead of the drug testers and always getting away with stuff. It'll be nice when the day comes when drug testing is ahead of the cheaters and they'll catch the people who are not competing clean.