Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dara Torres and the Mind and Body of an Athlete

Jeff Taylor Reason Magazine, undertakes the case of Dara Torres, the 41 year old, five time Olympian who is swimming near the top of the swimming world. In a world where Torres is competing against athletes who are young enough to be her own daugthers, everyone assumes that Torres has found some way to cheat.

Taylor talks about the physiological and psychological benefits of motherhood (Torres has a two year old daughter). He talks of personal turnarounds, etc:
The advantages of motherhood might be all psychological, yet very real nonetheless. Certainly the sports comeback meme routinely features a mental and emotional component.

Besides, the Official Feel Good Story of MLB this year has been the resurrection of Josh Hamilton. The former number one overall draft pick, who spent a couple years digging ditches after blowing almost $4 million on a cocaine addiction, was an All-Star just a couple weeks ago. Hamilton's sober status is confirmed with regular urine tests, the negative results of which are taken at face-value. At every opportunity, Hamilton credits his religious faith and his wife with turning his life and career around.

With that, Hamilton joins former NFL and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, who came from absolutely nowhere to guide the St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf to a title. His absurd fairy-tale story was not doubted as the likely product of cheating. Athletes like Hamilton and Warner routinely tout a change in personal outlook or relationships as having a profoundly positive impact on their performance.

With these examples in mind, it seems totally plausible that Dara Torres, happy mother of a two-year-old girl, has found a focus and sense of well-being that she might not have previously. Here is where it becomes clear why Forde and other Torres doubters like to portray swimming as primarily a function of lung capacity. Admitting that the ability to focus and maintain a peace of mind might boost performance undermines the case against Torres.

Fortunately for her, swimming is not just about lungs. Body control and consistency of stroke matter. Think of all the things that can go wrong with a golf swing. Now imagine aiming to take the perfect swing several times a second. In short, perhaps the 41-year-old Torres is finally the swimmer she was always capable of being.
Torres' success does come with a price tag, over $100,000 per year for her coach, trainer, two massueses (I think), a nutritionist/cook and a nanny. But it is hard to argue with success (just look at the physical results:

Photo from New York Times.

Clearly she has worked to hone her body and perhaps it is with the benefit of age comes the need of consistency and certainly the ability to focus on goals. There are 20 and 25 year old kids competing in the Olympics who would kill for a body like that.

But is she cheating? I doubt it, with this much scrutiny, it is highly unlikely that she is doping.

So the question is, how is she doing it?

My theory is brains. In short, she is pushing the envelope of her sport and her age by being smarter than everyone else. Yes, she has raw talent and certain physical attributes that make good swimmers, flexible ankles for kicking, somewhat big hands, long arms, thin body. She is clearly dedicated to training and working her body. Her sport is one without the impact abuse of say running or soccer, so that can extend her competitive career. But she appears to be going at thinks much smarter than her competition.

I hope she wins because as I approach teh big 4-0 myself, I would like to know that if I am smart, I can still compete with the younger guys to a certain extent.

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