The Comeback Crawler

New mom, four-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres, is going for gold-- again.

Dara Torres could give Elle Macpherson a run for her money. The six-foot-tall Macpherson may proudly possess the title of “The Body,” thanks to a cover story published by Time magazine back in ’86, but four-time Olympian Dara Torres has a physique that has endured the pool, pregnancy and the passing of time with perfection.

Although Torres was the first athlete to appear in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue (‘94), of more notable recognition are the medals she’s racked up as the first American swimmer to compete in four Olympic games. Nine times over a period of 16 years, Torres stood victoriously atop the tri-level podium in front of the international community, despite several long stints out of the water. The pinnacle moment of her career came at the 2000 Games in Sydney, when she fought back from a seven-year retirement to win two gold and three bronze medals. At 33, she became the oldest American, male or female, to win an Olympic gold in swimming.

Fast forward another seven years. Where is Torres now? Still in the pool, of course. This time the Parkland, FL resident is training to swim in the 2008 Beijing Olympics— as the first athlete over the age of 40 to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team. But as the comeback queen and with a crowd of supporters cheering her on, Torres is aimed to make waves.

“If anybody can do it, she can,” says Chris Jackson, her swimming coach for more than a year.

Breaking records and shattering expectations is second nature to Torres, who first broke the world record for the 50-meter freestyle (25.62) at the tender age of 14 and then earned her first Olympic gold medal two brief years later. Admittedly a tomboy as a child, which she credits to having four older brothers, Torres started swimming at age 7 or 8 and spent summers swimming in Quogue, Long Island. She continued to out-swim collegiate competitors at University of Florida, where she received 28 All-American honors. By the age of 25, Torres retired for the first time. But “retiring” seems to be the one thing that Torres cannot do successfully. Like many ex-athletes, she found success as a TV commentator— at the 2004 Athens Olympics, hosting E! Television and reporting as the feature correspondent for Good Morning America. But among her laundry list of accomplishments, Torres is most proud of her recent role— as a mother to 10-month-old Tessa Grace Torres-Hoffman.

“I always wanted to have kids,” Torres says. “I obviously started much later, but the timing was perfect for me. I was mature and could handle it.”

Handling the challenges that accompany the first few months of pregnancy, however, was not always smooth sailing. Torres was tired and nauseous all of the time, she says. She kept bags in her car in case she had to pull over and vomit, and staying active was a struggle. When she had a lull in her queasiness, she would hop in the pool for an easy swim. Within a few months, she was completing 6am workouts with exercises designed by a trainer. Although she still vomited from time to time, she claims that getting sick in the gutter of the pool was more convenient than puking next to the StairMaster at the gym.

“Something about being in the water always made me feel better,” Torres shares. “I would go in the pool and Tessa would move. The water helped to release pressure.”

As her workouts continued, Torres regained the strength and focus that were so distinctly part of her past. Her coach immediately recognized this growth and hoped that it would spawn a new period of competition. A week before she delivered, he asked her if she could swim in a meet that was only four weeks away. The day she delivered, she even lifted weights. It was nearly impossible to compete in the first meet, but it only took Torres two to three weeks to lose the 36 pounds she’d gained. Two months later, she had whittled down her “flabby” stomach into six-pack abs. A scant three and a half months post delivery, Torres broke the world record for her age group, leading the 50-meter freestyle relay in the FINA Masters World Championship.

Torres was even slightly shocked by the win.

“I’ve been in it for so long and then retired for so long,” she admits. “I didn’t think my body could continue to do this.”

Torres attributes a healthy lifestyle, her supportive longtime partner, David Hoffman and a pregnancy-friendly trainer to her successful rebound. She now swims four days a week, lifts weights three days a week and hopes to be in the pool six days a week by next summer.

“I was expecting people to think that I’m nuts, but everyone has been positive so far,” she says. Given her past, doubting Torres would be foolish.

“Dara does things that your normal 39 year old who just had a baby could not do,” coach Jackson declares. “She’s a natural swimmer with legitimate power and I really think she can make the team.”

Her incredible sense of determination that stems from years of intense training has kept her on track, even amongst the challenges of having a child.

“At first I felt guilty about leaving Tessa to go train for a few hours, but I realized that I have to have a life,” she admits.

Torres hopes that her sense of independence will be instilled in her daughter, and that her actions will inspire other mothers to take the road less traveled. Is it ever a challenge? Of course, she says, but now that Tessa’s sleeping through the nights, Torres has a much easier time making it to those 6am swims.