NFL

Penalty Strokes

Why does Dara Torres swim under a cloud?

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Rumors that a certain athlete was cheating were flying thick earlier this month at the United States Olympic swimming trials. She was too fast, too good. She simply turned in much better times than anyone thought she was capable of. She might make the team for the trip to Beijing, commenters said, but her steak wouldn't last.

Sure enough, last week a member of the U.S. women's swim team tested positive for a banned substance. When one test came back positive, Jessica Hardy stayed in California while the rest of team headed for Singapore to train. Hardy says she is innocent and has filed an appeal. Meanwhile, the rumors about Dara Torres continue unabated.

The Dara Torres drama has been unfolding over the past year. Her bid for a fifth trip to the Olympics was jump-started with a win in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. nationals last August. Almost immediately began speculation that the 41-year-old recent mother had to be cheating.

But then the sporting world's obsession with rooting out performance enhancing drugs took a weird turn. Taking and passing drug tests did not clear Torres of the allegations. Nor did her volunteering to participate in a pilot program which tests both blood and urine for signs of doping matter. Her performance was simply decreed too good not to have been the product of cheating. This is not even guilty until proven innocent; this is guilty with no hope of parole.

ESPN columnist Pat Forde recently gave form and substance to the widespread belief in the sporting press that Torres just had to be cheating. Forde wrote that Torres' performance "made me wonder whether too good to be true is the same thing as too good to be clean."

Incredibly, Forde said that baseball's various drug scandals make him suspicious of Torres's late-career boost. The next time a 40-year-old mom gets a strikeout in a MLB game, I'll perhaps see Forde's point. But there is a bigger fiction at work.

There is much less certitude about how the human body works than those who are busy defining the limits of human potential assume. This is especially true at the relatively novel intersection of sports science, top female athletes, and pregnancy. The massive natural doses of hormones Torres received during pregnancy, ones intended to loosen the pelvic girdle and make the delivery of a child easier for every mother, may have also had the effect of leaving Torres more flexible in all of her joints.

The advantages of motherhood might be all psychological, yet very real nonetheless. Certainly the sports comeback meme routinely features a mental and emotional component.

Besides, the Official Feel Good Story of MLB this year has been the resurrection of Josh Hamilton. The former number one overall draft pick, who spent a couple years digging ditches after blowing almost $4 million on a cocaine addiction, was an All-Star just a couple weeks ago. Hamilton's sober status is confirmed with regular urine tests, the negative results of which are taken at face-value. At every opportunity, Hamilton credits his religious faith and his wife with turning his life and career around.

With that, Hamilton joins former NFL and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, who came from absolutely nowhere to guide the St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf to a title. His absurd fairy-tale story was not doubted as the likely product of cheating. Athletes like Hamilton and Warner routinely tout a change in personal outlook or relationships as having a profoundly positive impact on their performance.

With these examples in mind, it seems totally plausible that Dara Torres, happy mother of a two-year-old girl, has found a focus and sense of well-being that she might not have previously. Here is where it becomes clear why Forde and other Torres doubters like to portray swimming as primarily a function of lung capacity. Admitting that the ability to focus and maintain a peace of mind might boost performance undermines the case against Torres.

Fortunately for her, swimming is not just about lungs. Body control and consistency of stroke matter. Think of all the things that can go wrong with a golf swing. Now imagine aiming to take the perfect swing several times a second. In short, perhaps the 41-year-old Torres is finally the swimmer she was always capable of being.

The Pat Forde camp flatly rejects this possibility. Of Torres beating swimmers half her age, "It shouldn't even be possible for a woman in her 40s."

Exactly. Catching a glimpse of the impossible is precisely what the ancient Greeks sought out in sport. Good luck in Beijing, Dara.

Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.

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  1. Eh, my money’s on doping. If she isn’t, she’s one of the 1% of serious athletes who aren’t.

    They ought to just toss out the doping laws and let people ruin their long-term health for a medal if they choose to.

  2. I’m certainly not convinced that she’s clean, but there’s a big difference between thinking she might not be and writing an article about how she clearly can’t be.

    The other thing that people might want to remember is that she swims the 50 free. That’s a very different training regimen (read: a lot less intensive) than, say, the 400 IM. You will sometimes see breaststrokers or distance swimmers that are moderately sized (or, on the women’s side, even small). But the sprinters are always behemoths. And Dara Torres is a behemoth. She always has been, even when she was younger. Basically, I’m saying the 50 is all about FSM-given talent. If a 41 year old is ever going to be competitive, it’s in the 50.

    I certainly don’t want to sound like I know (or even believe) that she’s clean, but there are subtleties to swimming that the “it only matters every 4 years” crowd goes out of their way not to understand.

  3. Just have Augmented and Unaugmented divisions. The puritans can watch the goody-two-shoes and I can watch a amphetamine-crazed cyborg throw a javelin six miles.

    In a few years the Augmented events will have the attendance of a WNBA game.

  4. Unaugmented, I mean. Stupid defective brain.

  5. I so don’t care about the Olympics, unless juicy footage of beaten protestors somehow finds its way out of the police state, or a distance runner gaks up soot and dies. That would be cool.

  6. “Body control and consistency of stroke matter. Think of all the things that can go wrong with a golf swing. Now imagine aiming to take the perfect swing several times a second.”

    This is right on target. Swimming fast is as much about technique and body shape as it is about physical fitness. In the water, reducing drag is extremely important; on land it’s of negligible performance.

    One reason world records continue to fall is that today’s swimmers are taught more efficient stroke techniques than their predecessors. And the helpfulness of a new technique is going to vary from swimmer to swimmer, just as the new high tech suits will help some swimmers more than others.

  7. Obviously the hormones that flooded her body during pregnancy are an unfair advantage. We should prevent anyone who has had hormones pumping through their bodies at such a drastic rate (say, during puberty) from competing. Except in gymnastics. Watching little girls bounce around in leotards is just creepy.

  8. Her name is Dara, not Dana.

  9. This is like, “I broke up with her because I heard she was going to break up with me.”

  10. Watching little girls bounce around in leotards is just creepy.

    This is actually how I know I’m getting old. At 11, that was the best part of the olympics. And again at 15, 19, and so on. Now I’m horrified that anyone would think that’s sexy.

    And get off my lawn!

  11. I know very little about swimming, aside from watching the olympics every few years. But know a great deal about baseball and football.

    The reason Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other aged athletes (Like Dara Torres) terrific performances were questioned is that we know a great deal about what happens to athletes in these sports as they age. A lot of research has been done into baseball players and the typical aging pattern is for performance to peak sometime in the late 20’s early 30’s which is then followed by a continual decline. Despite imporvements in modern medicine and training, this seems very natural as the human body simply cannot produce as much athletic output in one’s 30’s to 40’s as one’s 20’s. There is some benefit for wisdom, but this is very much unlikely to overcome age-based deterioriation in a sport like swimming. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were striking because they not only arrested their decline, but saw a dramatic upswing in their production.

    As I understand it, this is even worse in sports like Track and Field and Swimming, which have a large emphasis on fast-twitch muscles.

    Any athlete in these sports who puts up numbers substantially above their career norms, especially when age related declines would make the opposite a natural assumption, can be an honest target of such concerns. Even moreso in today’s era where recurring PED use can be hidden with the use of masking agents.

    Kurt Warner and Josh Hamilton are very bad comps to Dara Torres. Josh Hamilton is currently at the peak of his athletic abilities (he is 27), and was previously destroying his potential through recreational drug use. The fact that he regained stopped hurting himself in an athletic sense is irrelevant to Dara Torres.

    Kurt Warner was a highly cerebral quarterback, who simply wasn’t given a chance early in his career. It turned out that his intelligence and accuracy made up for his otherwise mediocre athletic gifts. He performed at this high level in his late 20’s early 30’s. Not post 40.

    My favorite players growing up were Nomar Garciaparra and Drew Bledsoe. They were both extremely talented, had great early success and then followed with normal age related declines (Nomar was also hurt with some wrist injuries). If they were to come back after 40 and put up career numbers, it is very natural to question whether they had some chemical enhancement.

  12. Watching little girls bounce around in leotards is just creepy

    Only if putting a chimp in a leotard is creepy.
    Because they are little broad-shouldered chimps.

  13. Her name is Dara, not Dana.

    Seriously. Change this and acknowledge the mistake. This is some high school newspaper bullshit here, folks.

  14. One thing I don’t see in this discussion (unless I missed it) is the real reason for the suspicion. Have you SEEN Torres’ body? Her bodybuilder-type muscle mass and definition are the type usually only achieved by women from steroids (see FloJo.)

  15. No one knows for sure, and no one will every know for sure (unless she admits to using.) You/she can’t *prove* she isn’t using, only that she is (if she is), don’t we remember Marion Jones winning all those medals just a few years ago? I don’t care what testing they do, the designers of these drugs know how to hide them, so just allow them all to use and get on with it.

  16. Check out this article from NYT, 2007. It paints her as a woman who actually works really hard to be the best, and really is human (and over 40) after-all. Plus, at the time of this article at least, she was being tested, by blood, regularly. It seems to me that she is doing everything right, with or without drugs.

  17. No thoughts at all on the issue at hand, instead I have one question.

    Pat Forde recently gave form and substance to the widespread belief in the sporting press that Torres just had to be cheating

    When is Pat going down to George Forman’s house to tell him that forty year olds can’t be world class athletes?

    I might even be persuaded to watch TV for that.

  18. George Forman was an “athlete” in the same way that John Kruk was an “athlete.”

  19. Are you always “Just Sayin'”? If so… honey, is that you?

  20. George Forman [sic] was an “athlete” in the same way that John Kruk was an “athlete.”

    Just Sayin’ is a “wit” in the same way that Lonewacko is a “wit”.

    I’m certain he’s never been able to hit a 95 mph fastball, or go 10 rounds in a ring with a professional boxer.

  21. She is beating competitors half her age, after having kids, and being out of competitive swimming for how long? I will bet any amount that you can count that she is NOT “clean”. At least, not in the perfromance enhancing sense.

  22. The reason Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other aged athletes (Like Dara Torres) terrific performances were questioned is that we know a great deal about what happens to athletes in these sports as they age.

    And we also know that steroids can make your head blow up like a balloon as it did in Barry’s case.

  23. Just have Augmented and Unaugmented divisions. The puritans can watch the goody-two-shoes and I can watch a amphetamine-crazed cyborg throw a javelin six miles.

    In a few years the [un]augmented events will have the attendance of a WNBA game.

    I agree. and it would be way cooler.

  24. I’ll have to disagree with most of you folks.

    Dara Torres spends her days with swim coaches, personal trainers, personal stretchers, nutritionists. Her training is her job, and as told in the (I believe) NY Times story, she has the money to afford it. Women in sport peak later in life than men – there is research to prove it, and 41 is the perfect age if given great genetics and the financials to devote to a sport.

    I believe she is clean. She’d have to be nuts to volunteer for an intensive anti-doping pilot program if she was doping.

  25. I don’t care about any of this……I’d tap that in a heartbeat!!!

  26. Most recently, we saw a 53-year-old man lead the British Open after the third round.

    Torres never won an individual medal until 2000. She didn’t even go to the 2004 Olympics. I’m having doubts.

    I am convinced, however, that sports should us let athletes do whatever they want.

  27. I couldn’t read the article because I suspected that the author might have used stimulants when writing it.

  28. Women in sport peak later in life than men

    Citation?? Women peak much earlier than men in tennis and golf; I have never heard that it is different in other sports.

    But barring the 13 small surgical incisions on her knees, elbows, shoulders, hands and fingers, her physique looks nearly flawless

    I don’t have a dog in the fight, and she gets the presumption of innocence from me, but that makes suspicion reasonable. But I think that the (natural) post-pregnancy hormones are definitely part of the equation.

  29. Sure, we should be suspicious of someone past the “age 30” prime, but it isn’t at all impossible that she is clean. You gotta figure:
    1. Sure, most people over 40 will be physically inferior to younger people, but out of every 1000 people, there will be exceptions. High level competitions will attract these people. Those that can’t hang, you won’t ever hear about, remember.
    2. Training methods, nutrition, medicine, softer lives, and many more people having the time and money to pursue dreams, has expanded the pool of older athletes in the last 20 years. (Of course, better and less detectable drugs have also advanced.)
    3. Look at UFC and other sport fighting – many of the big names are late-30s to mid-40s – Chuck Liddell is almost 39. Randy Couture just retired at 44 (and is talking about returning.) Ernesto Hoost retired from kickboxing at 42. George Foreman won a title at age 45 against a 26-year-old.
    4. Many MLB players lasted into their 40s – Carl Yastrzemski retired at 44, Nolan Ryan at 46. (This isn’t exactly the same thing as Dara, since they weren’t in individual competitions, but they, and others, were/are still top level.)
    5. Trust, but verify. There are excellent reasons to cheat. This is a link to a good Scientific American article about cheating in cycling:
    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-doping-dilemma
    6. Sugar Free’s idea about augmented and unaugmented is EXCELLENT. Let the people decide if a ‘roided up athlete’s results are real, or not (as long as the athlete gives informed consent to the huge side effects of these drugs.)

  30. having the augmenteds in a separate division wil make it even more worthwhile for the cheaters who stay.

  31. J sub D | July 31, 2008, 6:25pm | #
    George Forman [sic] was an “athlete” in the same way that John Kruk was an “athlete.”

    Just Sayin’ is a “wit” in the same way that Lonewacko is a “wit”.

    I’m certain he’s never been able to hit a 95 mph fastball, or go 10 rounds in a ring with a professional boxer.

    Nope, haven’t done either of those things. Just competed in U.S. soccer at a very high level. In my opinion, “athlete” has SOMETHING to do with physical fitness. When I think of athletes, I think of track, basketball, soccer, swimming, etc.

    I agree it’s very impressive to be able to do the things you mentioned, but we also see tubs o’ goo like Foreman and Kruk that are able to do them. Why not call a 300 pound champion video gamer, who is good because of fast fingers and a fast mind, an “athlete?”

  32. Look at UFC and other sport fighting – many of the big names are late-30s to mid-40s

    Probably not the best example. I would be shocked if any testing they do in those organizations was more than a sham.

  33. “Admitting that the ability to focus and maintain a peace of mind might boost performance”
    They say that when someone they don’t want to win wins, and yet every athlete and coach knows how important mental conditioning is. “Visualization” is more than just a buzzword but part of training, and has plenty of experimental evidence to back it up.

    Regarding pregnancy hormones, I remember when coaches of other teams had the chutzpah to argue that Armstrong’s cancer helped him because of the drugs he had to take to rebuild his wasted body.

    We are still learning so much. Even 15 years ago most athletes refused to lift weights, now they all do. It usually seems more about jealousy than anything.

  34. R C Dean wrote:
    “Look at UFC and other sport fighting – many of the big names are late-30s to mid-40s

    Probably not the best example. I would be shocked if any testing they do in those organizations was more than a sham.”

    Good point. As a counterpoint, the 20 somthings would get a benefit from PEDs, too.

  35. This woman has been tested, tested and retested and is continuously clean. She is disciplined; she trains constantly and she is a winner. Leave her alone and let her win!

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