This weekend, Dara Torres did not find her journey was as divinely inspired as that of Michael Phelps. She missed her gold in the “splash and dash” by just one one-hundredth of a second—a margin so miniscule that even the still photographs and super slow-speed video are difficult to comprehend, and seeing the finish with the naked eye is downright impossible. The second fastest female swimmer in the world is 41, that is 17 years older than winner Britta Steffen. Torres is also a staggering 25 years older than the bronze medalist, Cate Campbell, who was born in 1992, the year Torres competed in her third Olympic games and the year Torres first retired.

Of course, the wonderful mathematics of Dara Torres don’t stop there. She is competing in her fifth Olympics (and has won medals at each!), a record for a swimmer. But Torres sat out in 1996 and 2000, meaning that this could have been her seventh Olympics. Her career spans 24 years and, at 41, she is the oldest swimmer in Olympic history--male or female. Everyone in the media has understandably made a big deal about Torres’s role as a mother, but I don’t think enough is made of the fact that Torres had this child two years ago. In other words, Torres didn’t retire in 1992 in order to start a family and then plot her comeback. She didn’t even retire after the 2000 games in order to start a family and plot a comeback. Both of those retirements were simply genuine attempts to leave the world of competitive swimming. In fact, when Torres became pregnant, she still didn’t have her eye on Olympic gold--but she did find her way back to the pool: She was trying to stay fit during pregnancy--and one thing led to another... As The New York Times Magazine’s Elizabeth Weil put it: “Three and a half months postpartum, she raced at the Masters World Championships. Fifteen minutes after nursing Tessa in the bathroom, she swam the first leg of the 50-meter freestyle relay in 25.98 seconds—fast enough to qualify for this week’s Olympic trials.”

This weekend in Beijing, Torres swam that same race in 24.07 seconds—faster than the Olympic record, faster than the U.S. record, faster than her personal best. It is impossible to have asked any more of this champion. Still, during the podium ceremony, listening to the German national anthem, you could see the abject, wrenching pain in Torres’s face. At a swim meet earlier this year, Torres also came in second; as she stepped off the podium, a high school fan asked to see Torres’s medal: “‘Sure,’ [Torres] said. ‘You can have it.’”


--Sacha Zimmerman