EXCLUSIVE: Dara Torres on Obstacles, Sacrifice and the People Who Lift Her Up

Dara Torres is one of the most decorated female athletes of all time with a stunning 12 Olympic medals including four gold. She competed in five Olympic games during the course of her swimming career, most famously staging a comeback at the age of 41 when she took home a silver medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In this exclusive interview, Dara opens up about her health challenges and how obstacles inspired her rather than defeating her.

Dara, you started competitive swimming at a very young age. Can you tell us about your early years and what inspired your interest in the sport?
I grew up with four older brothers and whatever they did I wanted to do. Swimming was one of their activities and I remember when they were in the pool and I was in the bleachers watching them, I just wanted so badly to swim too. I was a pretty hyperactive kid and my mom realized that she had to get me in there so I could burn off some energy. Once I started swimming, I absolutely fell in love with it.

Many athletes draw inspiration from their role models. Were there any swimmers or sports figures who influenced your goals throughout your formative years?
I remember having a Pat Riley poster on my door. Besides thinking he was handsome, I really admired his coaching methods. There was one swimmer named Jill Sterkel who swam in my events, and I really looked up to her because she had great sportsmanship. And then there’s the incredible athleticism of legends like Michael Jordan who I really admired. You know you’ll never be like him but you still aspire to have something special like he had. There were different athletes I looked up to but not one in particular.

You’ve made an astounding five Olympic appearances. Can you reflect on the various obstacles and victories you faced at each Olympic Games?
During my first Olympics at 17 years old, I was so young. I was this crazy kid bouncing off the walls and in awe of everyone else. I don’t think in my first Olympics I could really appreciate it. In retrospect looking back and knowing what I felt and the attitude I had going into my fifth Olympics it was quite different. Obviously you see things a lot differently as a 41 year old than you do as a 17 year old. Also, I had asthma which was undiagnosed until after the 1992 Olympic games. My first three Olympic games, I was unknowingly dealing with this serious health issue which hurt me because I would die at the end of my races. Everyone just assumed I was a drop-dead sprinter but asthma was actually the condition that played a huge role. In 1988, I was dealing with bulimia so those Olympic games weren’t my best. A lot of people put athletes on pedestals but we go through a lot of ups and downs just like everyone else and it’s a matter of how you deal with those obstacles that get thrown in front of you that determines how well you perform.

Winning 12 Olympic medals is an extraordinary achievement. How did you deal with the great pressure and expectations that come with representing your country on the global stage?
To me it was the thrill of it that really gave me my energy when I was competing in the different Olympics. It’s such an amazing feeling to be there with those three letters on your jackets and your swimsuits – USA. It’s more of an honor than anything. Rather than thinking of representing my country as nerve wracking, I used it as inspiration. Knowing I was there representing my country gave me the energy to swim well at the Olympics. Swimming is a very individualized sport unless you’re in the relay. So even though you’re representing your country you’re also swimming that individual event and trying to beat your personal best.

The choice to return from retirement for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and win silver at the age of 41 is legendary. What inspired you to make that comeback, and how did you psychologically and physically prepare for such a challenging task?
I think there were different inspirations for me. The fact I was so old, people said I couldn’t do it. There was also the challenge of competing after having a child. If someone tells me I can’t do something or obstacles are put in front of me that are a big challenge, I thrive on that. I didn’t know if I could make the Olympic team in 2008. I didn’t know if my body could handle it but I was going to try. No one had done that before and it’s something that I wanted to do because of the challenge of it. Obviously, physically it was tough and the recovery was much different at 40 years old compared to when I was 21 years old at the 1988 Olympics.

Twenty years later, I still thought I could do what the young kids were doing and do two workouts a day and swim for hours. But I realized very quickly that I couldn’t. I knocked down from nine workouts a week to five workouts a week in the pool. I worked with the trainer Andy O’Brien who really knows the body so well. Physiology wise he’s so in tune with the body and has an eye for what you’re doing and not doing. He is able to take what he knows in the weight room and gear something toward you so you can be the best and strongest but not have to lift the heaviest weight. This really reduced my risk of injury. It was a thrill working with him. I had stretching trainers to help me with my recovery because recovery was a big thing for me being that old. There were a lot of moving parts going into this comeback but I really felt that I had a great team of people – massage therapists, stretching trainer, Andy O’Brien, my sprint coach, and my main coach. It was really nice to have a great team of people that didn’t have an ego and who all had the same aspiration, which was to help me make the Olympic team and win a gold medal.

Dara, your life is complex, and you have taken on many roles outside of swimming. Can you tell us about some of the projects or activities that have given you satisfaction outside of the pool?
I’ve been fortunate to be paired with different companies that represent something that I feel proud to be a part of. I would never say yes to representing a company just because they gave me a lot of money. I’ve worked with everything from Bengay cream to AmLactin lotion for dry skin to Can-i Wellness. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to be paired with these different companies that help people who struggle with things I also struggle with such as maintaining health and wellness, getting a good night’s sleep and recovery.

Balancing a high-profile sporting profession and personal life can be difficult. How did you maintain a sense of normalcy and meaningful relationships despite the pressures of competitive swimming?
I really had just a great support system. My family was behind me and supported me every step of the way. I had some great friends and also really relied on the amazing training team I put together. It’s really about trying to find a balance with people who lift you up, not bring you down. I felt very fortunate that I had that.

Every athlete experiences disappointments and hardships. Can you describe a specific occasion in your career when you faced a huge challenge and how you overcame it?
I had many hardships, including almost every injury from knee to shoulder. For example, I had a knee injury that required reconstruction in the form of a cartilage transplant. It was a 12 to 18 month recovery. While that was going on, I tried to do other things in my program that would still make me feel good. In that case, when my knee was out, I was doing upper body work and core work. I did stuff that I knew would make me stronger until I could get my knee better. It’s hard work. If you’re at the level of elite athlete already or looking to get to the elite level, you know what sacrifice and dedication means. But the sacrifices you make in the area of sport really pay off in other aspects of your life. If you’re dealing with an injury and you know it’s going to be a crazy recovery, you have to get into the right mindset to realize that there are other things you can do.

Swimming places enormous physical demands on one’s body. How did you prioritize your emotional and physical health, particularly during rigorous training sessions and competitions?
My last Olympics was in 2008 and back then, mental health wasn’t as much in the forefront as it is now. But I was paying attention to my mental and emotional health anyway. Even when I wasn’t training, I would work out to relieve the stress and I would hang out with people who have a positive effect on me. In 2008 at our training camp leading into the Olympics, my coach was dealing with a rare blood disorder and was basically on his deathbed. For support in dealing with that, I met with the team psychologist. I have no shame about going to talk to someone because it’s amazing how they can put things in perspective. You train for two years going into the Olympics and make incredible sacrifices for this one moment that’s do or die. And when there’s other stuff on your mind, you need to figure out how to turn it off. Going to talk to a psychologist really helped me during that period to really focus on my task at hand and to realize I could deal with the other stuff afterward.

Dara, the notion of “Can-i Wellness” focuses on an individual’s ability to achieve comprehensive well-being. How do you apply this idea to your life, given the demands of competitive athletics and your post-retirement plans?
I literally take my Can-i Sleep spray every night because I know I’m going to get a great night’s sleep when I take it. The great thing is it still works. It’s not like you have to keep taking more and more for it to work. It’s kind of my crutch but I rely on it because I know if I don’t get sleep I’m going to be grumpy. I won’t be my best that day. I rely on other things too like Can-i Boost. There are days when I wake up and I’m tired because I had a long day the day before. And knowing I have those products to help me through the day really helps. I know there are a lot of people who want to try to manage sleeplessness on their own and think they can do it themselves. But I say to those people, “You’re miserable. I’m not.” I’m going do what I need to do to be the best I can be that day. We all have our ups and downs. If there’s something that can help me be my best that’s not bad for me that has an all-natural health and wellness focus, I’m going to use it. I’m not afraid to take something to make me feel better that morning or to take something to help me sleep better.
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Dara Torres with vitamins for energy
Dara Torres, 12x Olympic medalist and Can-i Wellness Chief Wellness Officer

 

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