Dara Torres: Olympic Swimming's Full-Time Mom, Full-Time Champion

Eric TonnContributor IApril 6, 2009

OMAHA, NE - JULY 05:  Dara Torres celebrates winning the semifinal of the 50 meter freestyle and setting a new American record of 24.38 during the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials on July 5, 2008 at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing came with more fanfare and anticipation than any Olympics in recent history.

The temporary opening of China's borders and the breathtaking—and controversial—Opening Ceremony combined to move the world to the edge of its collective seats.

And as fellow American swimmer Michael Phelps, then 23 years old, took to the pool in pursuit of Mark Spitz and history, another American swimmer's story captured the hearts of watchers.

A 41-year-old mother of one, Dara Torres set her eyes on a historic comeback to the sport she had dominated for parts of three decades.

A quarter-century ago, Torres announced her presence internationally at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games with a gold medal in the 4x100m freestyle. As a 17-year-old in those Games, she fit the mold of a world-class swimmer.

In each successive Olympics but the 1996 and 2004 Games, Torres came home with at least one medal. She even won five medals—three bronze and two gold, both individual and relay—in the 2000 Sydney Games as the oldest member of her American swimming squad.

She was 33 years old back then.

But eight years removed from her last Olympic triumphs, Torres was more than a seasoned veteran—she was old enough to be most of her competitors' mother, let alone be a mother herself.

She certainly had the confidence of an Olympic champion in the lead-up to her races, constantly addressing the glaring age gap with finesse and a smile. She believed in herself, and she could not imagine why the American public would not as well.

Her teammates elected her—along with Amanda Beard and Natalie Coughlin—a captain prior to the Games.

And Torres even submitted herself for a voluntary drug screening program to allay any fears or accusations of performance-enhancing drugs.

So when the games finally began, the American public did not tune out when Phelps hopped out of the pool. Instead, Torres grabbed America's attention.

She and Phelps—a one-two male-female punch that no other country could match—traded time in the spotlight. After the country roared for Phelps' team's come-from-behind victory in the 4x100m freestyle relay, it then cheered for Torres' team's second-place finish in the same event.

Torres was the anchor of that relay, unheard of for such a senior member of the squad. 

Over the next week, Torres collected silver medals in her other two events, missing a gold in the 50m individual freestyle by 0.01 seconds.

She followed that near-victory with her third silver in three tries with the 4x100m medley relay less than 40 minutes later.

And while Torres did not leave Beijing with more gold medals than when she had arrived, she had three more silver medals for her collection.

But she also had much more than just medals to bring back—she had a transcendent story, triumphant for so much more than just herself.

Through it all—the whirlwind schedule, the rigorous training, the international microscope—Torres handled her comeback for a fifth Summer Games with the grace and ease of global role model and champion.