Commentary

Is Torres' unprecedented feat too good to be true?

Updated: July 5, 2008, 10:58 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- I want to believe in Supermom.

I want to believe Dara Torres, at age 41, has become a faster swimmer than she was in her teens, 20s and 30s with no strings attached. I want to believe she has rocketed out of a six-year retirement, bounced back from childbirth, overcome two surgeries in the past eight months and become the best American female sprinter -- again -- through nothing more than hard work and sensational talent. I want to believe 40-somethings everywhere have an all-natural inspiration for doing what they thought they were too old to do.

[+] EnlargeDara Torres
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDara Torres, 41, became the first U.S. swimmer to make five Olympic teams with her 100-meter win Friday.

But belief doesn't come easy.

Seeing Torres on the medal stand here at these Olympic swimming trials with her daughter, Tessa, on her hip? That's a feel-good story. We can only hope the feel-good story doesn't wind up making us all feel sick years from now.

Torres has never tested positive for any performance enhancers to my knowledge. She's requested random blood and urine testing from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and said she wants to be "an open book."

Torres met with USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart last year and, according to a report in The New York Times, decided to volunteer for a pilot program under the agency that "tests more broadly" for doping through blood and urine samples.

"Can USADA give Dara or some other athlete the stamp of cleanliness?" Tygart asked the newspaper. "No, the science isn't there yet." But he added, "I think a dirty athlete would be crazy to volunteer for this program."

According to the report, Tygart has yet to release any of Torres' results, but she told reporters here at the trials this week that she has been randomly tested "probably about 12 to 15 times since March."

But locking up a stunning fifth Olympic appearance on the Fourth of July by winning the 100-meter freestyle makes me wonder whether too good to be true is the same thing as too good to be clean.

Baseball and other sports have poisoned the well to the point that Torres' late-career renaissance reminds me of too many fraudulent fairy tales that have been foisted off on the gullible American public.

We were supposed to believe Roger Clemens was a dominant pitcher in his 40s because he trained harder and smarter than everyone else. We were supposed to believe Barry Bonds was capable of hitting 73 home runs at age 37 because he was simply that good and had worked tirelessly to build his body naturally. We were supposed to believe these miracles of human preservation, but we've since been given reason to believe they really were lying cheaters instead.

Torres understands where the doubts come from -- not just the recent examples in other sports, but also the simple fact that nobody in the sport's history has been this good at this age. She already was the oldest U.S. swimming gold medalist in history, and that was eight years ago. Nothing puts a greater strength-and-aerobic demand on a person than swimming, which is why it's a young person's sport.

In the face of all this improbability, Torres says the test results will set her free. She dismisses the doubters who will only multiply between now and her swims in Beijing.

"Anyone who makes any accusations, I see it as a compliment," she said Friday night.

Torres was subsequently asked by Eric Adelson of ESPN The Magazine about the asthma medication she takes, which can be of assistance in helping lung capacity. As long as 10 years ago, there was rampant speculation that the epidemic of inhalers on pool decks was a sign that swimmers were using them as performance boosters.

Torres said she was tested by doctors about 18 months ago and diagnosed as an asthmatic, and that she takes two medicines for it -- one in the morning and one before she swims.

"You actually have to take breathing tests you can't cheat on" to be diagnosed as an asthmatic, she said.

Torres certainly presents a strong, confident case for herself. But so have others before her.

I remember Marion Jones aggressively attacking those who questioned her credibility. And I remember Rafael Palmeiro pointing his finger at Congress and declaring that he was clean. We were supposed to believe them, too, before Jones went to prison for perjury and Palmeiro tested positive.

Plenty of predecessors have poisoned the well of blind faith in our American athletes. That's the tainted legacy of the Steroid Era. That's why there's a built-in resistance to buying Torres' resurrection on face value.

She joked to the press Friday night about being too old to read the scoreboard numbers after she touched the wall in the 100. She said her body is beaten up, that she'll be sore Saturday morning for the preliminary heats of her best event, the 50 free.

"I know that really, really, really, really hurt," she said of her 100 swim.

No doubt. It hurt the seven women in their 20s who chased her to the wall, too. It shouldn't even be possible for a woman in her 40s.

Which is the sticking point. This is all unprecedented -- and after years of being conned, we've become conditioned to question the unprecedented.

Who swims this well at that age? After having a child? Nobody. Ever.

Who takes six years off and comes back better than ever, lowering her best time in the 100 meters from 54.43 seconds in 2000 to 53.78 Friday night? Nobody. Ever.

Who has shoulder and knee surgery and comes back to whip women half her age less than a year later? Nobody. Ever.

"I want people to know that I am doing this right," Torres said earlier this week. "That I am 40, 41 years old and I am doing this and I am clean and I want a clean sport. I swam against swimmers who were dirty my entire life and it's just something I wouldn't do."

I want to believe Supermom. But she might simply have to take this column as one long compliment.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.