Penalty Strokes

Why does Dara Torres swim under a cloud?


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.