Torres competed in five Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. Swimming Team, earning four gold, four silver, and four bronze medals. Her Olympic career spans more than two decades, from the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where she won a gold at the age of 17, through the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when she collected three silver medals at 41. Competing at the highest level into her 40s in a sport where most athletes are finished by their early 20s is testament to Dara’s drive to succeed.
“I’ve always been very competitive. I think I was that way coming out of the womb,” Torres said after her talk. “I believe you are either born competitive or you’re not. I grew up with four older brothers and we competed in everything, even getting a seat at the dinner table.”
Torres, who was using a crutch for support because of a knee injury, spoke comfortably and casually for nearly 40 minutes to a rapt Currier Library audience of students and faculty before answering questions. The California native, who now lives in Dover, MA, also visited with students at an informal gathering Monday evening and at a luncheon with athletes Tuesday. Torres was invited to speak at Foxcroft by the School’s athletic trainer, Ruth Ann Allen, who has served on the medical staff of the U.S. Swimming Team at numerous events.
At the morning session, Torres explained how a desire to move from the gym back into the pool for workouts when she was pregnant ignited her competitive spirit and led to the Olympic team when most of her peers were lounging around their community pools or attending their children’s sporting events. On Aug. 17, 2008, in Beijing, Dara won a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle to become the oldest swimming medalist in Olympic history. It was one of three she won at the Games.
While Torres was being lauded by the news media for her achievements, missing gold by the smallest of margins annoyed her. “I remember squinting to look at the scoreboard to see where I finished. My eyes weren’t the same as when I was 20 years younger,” Torres said. “I saw that I had the best time of my career [an American record time of 24.07 seconds] and had lost the race by only one one-hundredth of a second to [Britta Steffen of Germany]. I know I should have been elated at my achievement, but I was upset at finishing second. I had set my goal at winning the gold medal and I had failed. Competitors are like that; anything less than finishing first is a failure.”
Dara vented her frustration underwater between smiling acknowledgements of the crowd’s appreciation, and she joked at a post-race interview that perhaps she should not have filed her fingernails the night before. Eventually, though, she recognized that what she had accomplished was extraordinary, especially as it all came two years after she gave birth to her daughter, Tessa.
“It took me some time to get over the fact that I didn’t win that race, but I finally realized that I had given my all and that’s all you can ask of yourself,” said Torres, adding, “I want to share something from Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She said, ‘You're not obligated to win. You're obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day.’ I did that. She also said, ‘I'm really grateful to have something that I'm passionate about.’ ”
Torres compared her Olympic experiences and her changing perspective. “I was so excited just being there in 1984 when I was 17 and in my first Olympics,” she said. “At Beijing, I appreciated being there in a very different way.
“And I was still as nervous as anyone else, but I realized that mentally, I was much stronger than the kids I was racing. I had my daughter at home and that was the most important thing for me. The kids thought the race was the most important thing. I knew that I did all the work to get there, so now I just had to go out and enjoy the moment. That was a big advantage.”
Torres shared insights beyond the swimming pool, too. “I believe you can take what you learn from sports and apply it to other aspects of your life,” she said, noting that she has encouraged her daughter to play sports in part for that reason.
Playing a variety of sports and having other interests in your life, though, is also key because of the potential for boredom and burnout, said Torres, who played basketball and volleyball in high school and even lettered in volleyball at the University of Florida after she had used up her swimming eligibility. “I wasn’t that good but the coach thought my strong work ethic would be good for the team,” she recounted. “By the end of the season I was playing a lot.”
At Florida, Torres won nine Southeastern Conference (SEC) individual championships and 12 relay team titles. Her 12 Olympic medals ties an all-time record for female swimmers shared by Americans Jenny Thompson and Natalie Coughlin.
Torres narrowly missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics and still swims several times a week, mostly with a Masters program. She also works with several organizations, including the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation’s