- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PRUDHOE BAY, Alaska (Aug. 16, 2028) -- On the eve of what Dara Torres promises (wink, wink) will be her final Olympic race, I'm reminded of that summer two decades ago when she astounded America and its then-50 states with her age-defying prowess in the pool.
That was 2008 in Beijing, back when northern Tibet was known as China and newspapers covered the Summer Olympics for the final time. (Newspapers were a once-popular form of communication with a delivery system that relied upon paper and young boys with bicycles.)
Torres was 41 years old that summer and competing in just her fifth Olympics, a mere two years removed from giving birth to her daughter, Tessa, whom Torres will compete against in today's 50 freestyle final. Tessa, who became a mother last fall when she cloned herself, probably would be amused to hear how Dara loosened up her fellow swimmers the morning of her final races that day in 2008 by describing the agonies of labor.
"Somehow childbirth came up and we were mimicking being in the stirrups and giving birth," she told reporters that day. "And I was trying to tell them that it actually wasn't that bad -- not the childbirth part, but afterward. After having a kid and getting back into shape, I felt like I was stronger and more flexible. They were like, 'Great, you showed us we can do that.'"
That was the overriding message of her performance that summer, when Torres won three silver medals at the Beijing Olympics, including medals in the 50 free and another in the 4x100 medley relay within an hour of each other on the final day of racing. Of course, Torres did a lot of incredible things that summer, beginning with making the U.S. team after breaking the American record at the trials when most swimmers her age were retired from competition and not looking at all good in their Speedos.
It was such an unbelievable feat for Torres that, in fact, many did not believe it was possible to do fairly and squarely at that age.
It seems almost quaint in this age now that we've learned that steroids do not pose a health risk and routinely are included in children's cereals such as Sugar Frosted Testosterone and Count Anabolica. Back then, though, such chemicals were banned from competition as dangerous performance enhancers. Cynics suspected Torres of cheating even though she never once tested positive for them.
Fans were left to decide for themselves whether Torres was just another cheat who was getting away with something shady or a powerful inspiration for everyone facing the challenges of age. The hopeful crossed their fingers and took the latter view. As Torres' U.S. teammate Kara Lynn Joyce said that day after finishing nearly a second behind Torres in the 50 free despite being two decades younger, "What she's done is give me hope for the next 20 years."
"She's really taken the age factor out of the sport," teammate Christine Magnuson said after watching Torres swim the fastest anchor leg in the medley relay.
Torres delighted in her role as inspiration to aging athletes and nonathletes alike: "If it helps anyone else out there who is in their middle-aged years and maybe put off something they thought they couldn't do because they thought they're too old or thought that because they have children they can't balance what they want to do with being a parent, if what I've done shows them that they can go out and do it, then I'm absolutely thrilled. That would be a rewarding experience if that comes out of this."
Another factor in Torres' comeback that summer was her famous competitiveness. Despite her age, despite completing an extraordinary return from an eight-year absence from the Olympics, when Torres won the silver in the 50 free in 2008, she was gritting her teeth over losing by just one-hundredth of a second. "I shouldn't have filed my nails," she said, and it was unclear whether she was joking or was just that driven.
It was just such a competitive instinct that has kept Torres swimming throughout the years, unable to retire at the first news conferences after her races in 2008, when she said she was unable to absolutely rule out a return in 2012 in London (now known as New Atlantis).
"We were kidding around that in Sydney I got a bronze and here I got a silver, so I still need that gold," Torres said in Beijing. "I don't know. I haven't thought that far in advance. Someone else asked me that question and [U.S. head coach] Mark Schubert said, 'Never say never.' I'm just going to go home and be with my daughter and my family and just go from there. The one thing I'm going to do that I didn't do in the past is I'm going to keep swimming for exercise. Other times, I just completely stopped after the Olympics. In Sydney, I didn't even warm down. As soon as I finished, I hung up the suit to dry. This will be a little different."
Fortunately, she didn't retire then -- Torres trains by swimming a mile a day at her club on the island of Kansas -- and so she is inspiring her fellow grandmothers. As Torres first said in 2008: "This is sort of my line, I guess. Don't put an age limit on your dreams."
Her performances throughout the decades also have helped turn swimming into a national pastime (as have the melting ice caps). The race between her and daughter Tessa figures to be the highlight of these brutally hot Prudhoe Bay Games, and President Scott Boras is expected to be in attendance.
Torres had 12 career Olympic medals after her 2008 performance. If she finishes in the top three today, she will have 19. That's an impressive number for sure, though it pales in comparison to the 49 medals -- including 37 gold -- won so far by Michael Phelps.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.