Many of us have, or will, arrive at a juncture in life where we'll stop, think twice and poke a hole in a goal or dream based on our age. We'll say the five dreaded words: "I'm too old for that." And at that moment, the goal will slowly deflate, fall to the ground and run the risk of never taking flight. Which is why, when we see someone defy the odds, we're captivated and mesmerized by their story; we grab a hold of their hope, resilience and determination and make it our own. We become inspired.
During the 2008 olympics I was glued to the TV, holding my breath as I watched the then-five-time olympian and 41-year-old Dara Torres swim the 50-meter freestyle. Seconds later, when her head surfaced and turned immediately to the scoreboard, her reaction is what stays etched in my mind. She hadn't won the gold (albeit, only by a hundredth of a second), that was obvious. But she radiated a smile of pride, courage and gratitude as she crossed into the other lanes to congratulate her competitors. The world was pulling for her in the tension of those seconds. She represented an anomaly -- the oldest swimmer to compete in the history of the Olympics. In many of our minds, she had won the gold before the race even started.
I recently caught up with Dara while she was in the middle of a brutal knee surgery recovery. After 12 hours of intense post-surgery sickness, she still kept our interview as scheduled and not only showed up, but did it with great enthusiasm and the candor that I was accustomed to seeing over the years. In Dara's book, Age Is Just A Number, she states that "athletes are outliers" on the curve. However, I saw her as an outlier of the outliers and probed into the traits that have enabled her to arrive at that rare place, asking, "There's something else that separates you from the rest -- something beyond determination, sacrifice and work ethic. What is it?"
"I don't have a word for it. I can't label it but I know it when I see it. When I'm around others, I can spot it really easily now. It's a will to win that's so strong that you want it more than everyone else," she told me. It's also apparent that Dara came out of the womb ready to compete. The youngest of six siblings, she even reveled in finishing her food first, tying her shoes or reaching the refrigerator before anyone else.
Dara trained fiercely throughout her pregnancy with daughter Tessa, now 7, for the 2008 Games; something many other mothers and practitioners would dare to call "irresponsible." She told me, "People would say 'you can't do those exercises. You can't swim that fast.' But most of that negativity is based on ignorance or fear." From the outside, Dara appears confident and tough but internally, her struggles are not unlike many of us: "Really, I have two opposing sides to myself -- the fierce competitor who thinks she can swim faster than anybody else, and the vulnerable woman desperate to please others and afraid to fail." I asked her to elaborate and referenced similar declarations in her book: "Were you aiming for acceptance by your Dad and coach?"
"No, I felt as if they had done so much for me; they had put the work in for a long time. I wanted to make them proud," she said.
Even though Dara had been coy in interviews leading to the 2012 Olympics, she was essentially giving the world a "wink" that she would indeed attempt yet another feat at age 45. In the months leading to the Games, I scoured the Internet, unable to find any recent update on her progress. And then, the opening ceremonies aired and some of my first words to my husband were, "Where's Dara?" Months before, she was haunted by another heart-wrenching nine-hundredths of a second miss that would have put her on the Olympic team.
"What's it like for something to have been such an ingrained and intense part of your life for 34 years and then essentially tell you 'you're finished?' Was there a mourning period, of sorts?"
To my surprise, she responded with a very peaceful and assured voice:
No, not at all. For many athletes, they're in their teens and early-mid-twenties. The sport is all they know. I'm in a place now where I can continue to enjoy my family. Tessa is 7 now and I have two stepsons and a husband. The pool is a 'gray area' for me now. I'm not psyched to go in, but I do for exercise. It's not the thrill of my life anymore. I'm focusing on how I can give back to the sport I was so passionate about for so long.
Tessa was disappointed not to be able to go to London to see her mom compete in 2012, but little did she know, she was one of the most influential factors in driving her mom to win three silver medals in 2008. "After I had my daughter, swimming wasn't the most important thing to me anymore so during my last games she was an advantage to my races; she helped to ease the tension. Being there was just a bonus."
When a person reaches heights that are unfathomable to the average person, the skeptics emerge. Some accused her of doping, an accusation all too prevalent and unfortunate in today's sports. She, Michael Phelps (who referred to Dara as "mom" during the 2000 games) and other Olympians voluntarily submitted themselves to the most rigorous drug testing to set the record straight.
"What was that like, to hear people make such accusations?" I asked.
"It's like being who you are your whole life, doing something for which you have worked so incredibly hard, then people telling you you're a fraud. If those people really knew me, they would never have said that."
"Is there any remote part of you that can understand why someone in that position would cheat?"
"I know how severe the level of competition is, so I can see why they want to win so badly and that they want to do anything to get there. But I don't know how they can live with themselves. I wouldn't be able to live with myself; to work so hard for something and then know I won by cheating."
During some of my preliminary research on Dara, I read a lot of comments from people who idolized her. Those who, like myself, had followed her trajectory for years, experiencing her joy alongside her while absorbing her contagious optimism and steel will. I also saw the comments of the ones who attributed her success to her 'fortunate' life, ranging from her affluent upbringing to the sponsors who have enabled her to focus almost solely on her swimming during competition periods. And then I noticed a rebuttal from someone who stated that Dara may have had some support along the way, but that she was smart enough to appreciate those advantages as opposed to wasting them. It seems that oftentimes, when someone flourishes, society has to find a reason, an excuse to discredit their hard work and talent. Perhaps it's a tool of insurance that keeps their own dreams deflated, of fear of what would come if they took a first step toward it.
It's valid to say that work ethic, a strong will to win, determination and even a few external advantages contribute to a person's success at any age. But after learning more about Dara, someone who has entirely defied all odds in her sport in both age and medal count, the real secret to gold is much less complicated. She sees the goal, feels it as if it's a core and essential part of herself and moves toward it without looking back. And most importantly, she always remembers, "the water doesn't know your age."