By: Jan Engoren Contributing Writer
Five-time Olympic swimmer and 12-time medalist Dara Torres was the keynote speaker at the 17th annual YMCA of South Palm Beach County Inspiration Breakfast on March 6 at the Office Depot Headquarters in Boca Raton.
The event raises funds for the Y’s Drowning Prevention Initiatives and financial assistance programs.
On crutches, due to a fall on the ice in Massachusetts, Torres addressed the crowd and spoke about inspiration, her trials and tribulations, perseverance and attaining one’s goals.
Speaking of Torres, Jason Hagensick, President and CEO of the YMCA of South Palm Beach County said, “Her incredible strength, endurance and dedication to health and fitness makes her an exemplary portrayal of the Y’s three pillars of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.”
In fact, Torres grew up doing gymnastics, playing basketball and swimming in the YMCA in Beverly Hills, CA.
“It’s the first place I went after school,” she said. “All my friends were there.”
“So when the YMCA asked me to be here on their behalf, it was a very easy yes,” Torres said.
Torres is the first swimmer to represent the U.S. in five Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008), and, at age 41, the oldest swimmer to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team.
At 15, Torres broke her first world record and made the Olympic team for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and took home her first gold medal.
Thinking that was that, she enrolled in the University of Florida where she studied journalism. After graduation, she got a job with NBC Sports and moved to New York.
Returning to swimming was the farthest thing from her mind. Then she heard Olympic medalist and figure skater, Brian Boitano, talk about making a comeback. Something about those words clicked for Torres.
Then 25, (considered too old to be a competitive swimmer) Torres returned to UF to train for the 1992 Olympics team for the summer games in Barcelona, where unsurprisingly she won her second relay gold medal for the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
After Barcelona, Torres returned to New York to work and became the first athlete/model to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Once again, competing was furthest from Torres’s mind. She had not trained or been in a pool for seven years, when she decided she was up for her next challenge.
In 1999, in her 30s, she moved to Palo Alto, CA to train with a coach who specialized in working with “older” athletes.
After training with the 7-17 year olds, she made the Olympic team for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where she won three individual Olympic medals — bronzes in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly.
At age 33, she was the oldest member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Swim Team and holds the honor of being is the first U.S. swimmer to compete in five Olympic games.
In Sydney, when a TV reporter asked her, “Do you think you’ll come back and compete in your 40s?” she thought, “That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
Now, she laughs and says she’d like to find the broadcaster to apologize.
Torres, then 38, returned to Florida and started training at the Coral Springs Aquatic Center.
Far from losing her competitive edge with age, Torres says she became more competitive than ever.
While coaches and other peers discouraged her from thinking about competing again (aren’t you too old?), her mother encouraged her, saying, “If anyone can do it, it’s you.”
She decided once more to go for the gold and set her goals. She trained for another two years and credited her age and maturity with giving her more of a mental advantage.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Torres became the oldest swimmer to compete in the Olympic Games. All her determination, motivation, perseverance and training paid off. Torres came in 1/100 of a second behind Britta Steffen of Germany, taking home three silver medals.
Interviewed after the event, the reporter asked, “What could you have done differently?”
Without batting an eyelash and illustrating her sense of self-deprecating humor, Torres retorted, “I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night.”
She recounted her story in her 2009 memoir, “Age is Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life.”
Her parting advice to the crowd was one of inspiration. “I learned a lot in my career,” she said. “Set your goals, work hard, give it your all and you, too, can make all your goals.”