When asked when she's finally going to quit swimming, Dara Torres responds rather tersely.
"I'm not a quitter," she says. "I'm not. When you have a passion for something, when you put your heart and soul into it, have been doing something for so many years of your life – you don't want to be the athlete who goes downhill quickly – but when you can hang with the youngsters, why not?"
It's hard to argue with her. In the 2008 Summer Olympics, Torres, then 41, swam faster than any American ever had in the 50-meter freestyle. She won silver, bested only by a woman 17 years her junior.
Next summer, Torres hopes to compete in her sixth Olympics. That's right, sixth.
There are no superlatives to describe the kind of stamina that spans four decades. Torres won her first Olympic medal (a gold) in the 1984 Games. She won her 12th in 2008.
Sure, there will be those who cry foul, unconvinced that a 45-year-old mother can still compete at a world-class level without the benefit of some form of artificial enhancement. So is the price one pays for being too remarkable – too good to be true.
Despite her apparent invincibility, Torres is showing signs of her age. She'd worn away all the cartilage below her left knee cap, resulting in a surgery in 2009 that required 24 months of rehabilitation. She's on month 20 and her training regimens have been pared down to only five to six hours a day.
"When I'm done training, [the younger swimmers] yell at me, 'It must be nice,' " Torres says. "I say, 'Yes it is.' My body can't handle all the yardage and stuff the kids are doing."
Still, swimming is her full-time job.
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Like any parent, she wakes up early, feeds her 5-year-old daughter, takes her to school, then heads to work, which just happens to be a pool. When she gets home, she walks her dog and fixes dinner.
"I really look to working parents as my role model," she says. "It wasn't easy at first when I decided to get back into swimming." Burned out, Torres took a break from swimming after the 2000 Games and didn't return until 2006. "I figured if a working parent can juggle a 9-5 job and be a great parent to a child, I can do the same thing."
Endorsement deals – she's serving as McDonald's global ambassador for the 2012 Olympics – help pay the bills. And get this: she eats Quarter Pounders with Cheese. Not a bad endorsement.
Her tentative plan for the 2012 Olympic trials is to attempt to qualify for only one event – the 50-meter freestyle. She's still considering the 100-meter free and possibly a relay, but those events are back-to-back in the trials, and Torres doesn't know if her body is up for that kind of grind.
If she does qualify, Torres will become the first swimmer to ever compete in six Olympics. Make it or not, it will be her last try.
"I really can say I don't need to accomplish anything else in my career," she says. "My motivation is of loving the sport of swimming, loving standing up and competing against the youngsters, doing something that no one else has done before, defying age, being an example. That's probably the biggest thing. So many people come up to me and tell me their story. That inspires me to go for one more Olympics.
"I'm going to give it the best run for my money and see what happens."
- Dara Torres