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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dara Torres

The three Olympians: Dara Torres top in 2008; center in 2000, and bottom in 1988.

While we're on the subject of performance enhancing drugs (see previous post), Dara Torres has been in the news recently too. She had her first post-Beijing race last weekend (she won the 50 at one of the Grand Prix meets). I've never believed her stories about how the transformation of her physique has been due to exercise and diet. A similarly skeptical friend sent me this set of pictures. Below is a post that I originally made on another website right before the '08 Olympic Trials:

Does anyone remember what Torres looked like from 1984-1992? She had a very pretty face, and also a feminine body which was always covered by a discernable layer of fat. She was strong, and there was -- and is -- no denying her talent (she still holds the 13-14 NAG record in the 50 yard free from 1982, a point in her life when she was undoubtedly clean). But it seemed at the time -- because of her feminine look -- that she had more female hormones (or at least fewer male hormones) than the average champion female swimmer of the time. (Of course, the average female champion of that era was East German, but that's a different story.)

When Torres came back in 2000 she had a totally different look: muscular and hard. It's possible to lose the baby fat through diet and exercise -- I've seen plenty of women who look fitter as 40 year olds than they did as teenagers -- but those are almost always women who didn't exercise as teenagers and then got religion later in life. Torres swam for Florida in college and certainly swam at least as much yardage back then as she did swimming with the Stanford program in '00, and certainly far more yardage than she is now swimming for Michael Lohberg in Coral Springs. So if the exercise doesn't account for the lack of fat, what does? Diet might, but it's almost impossible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time if you're dieting, and Torres definitely looked much more muscular in '00 than she did in her earlier incarnation.

The thing that really threw me was seeing how she was doing her lifetime best 200 lcm free after just one year of training at age 33. Now I could maaaaaybe believe that someone who's been keeping their swimming muscles fit could do their best 50 at age 33. But the 200 is an entirely different animal, it requires a lot of background yardage and a lot of cardiovascular conditioning. And over the course of seven years out of the pool you're going to lose a lot of that, a lot of your capillaries are simply going to close up from lack of use. Yet after just one year of training, Torres broke two minutes for the first time. The real shocker came when she broke the AR in the 100 lcm fly with a 57.59 after never having broken a minute in her earlier career. And, to be honest, I have a hard time believing that someone is going to come back after seven years away from the sport and do a lifetime best 50. (This is why all the "a's" in the maaaaaybe above.) You do sometimes see masters swimmers who will do lifetime best 50's in their late twenties or early thirties, but these are usually swimmers who never swam those events in college, other than on the way out to a 100, and none of these swimmers were world class when younger. You simply don't see it with world class swimmers for whom the 50 was their best event. (I'm not talking about the swimmers these days who hang on much longer but have stayed with the sport the entire time.)

I remember hearing people say she kept fit by doing tae bo during those years, but that's ridiculous -- it simply doesn't keep your swimming muscles fit. I did karate seriously for four years in my early thirties, and even swam two 2000 yard workouts a week during that time, but when I stopped the karate and tried swimming competitively again, I had lost a lot. Think about all the ex-swimmers you've known who tried running a marathon: were any of them nearly as fast in the pool afterwards? (Cross-training is one thing, but totally dropping swimming for another sport is another.)

I remember seeing a photo Torres had posed for for Speedo in '00. She was standing in a relaxed pose and you could see the veins coming out of the front of her shoulder and upper pectoral muscle. This is an area where most people don't have veins, and the people you see who do are usually the 'roid monsters you see on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine etc. (Another abnormal area where 'roiders sometimes show veins is on the sides of their quadriceps.) What happens when you take steroids is that as the muscles thicken and grow, there is simply less room for the veins, so they pop to the surface of the body, where they become visible right below the skin. Those of you who are clean, look at the front of your shoulder/upper pectoral area. You won't see veins there the same way you do in your forearm or hand. Yet bodybuilders have them there all the time -- and it's not because they do a lot of cardio training.

Torres was supposed to have been close to Quick in '00, and Quick's name supposedly appeared on the Balco list. (Why else would he have had to leave Stanford so suddenly?) And why did Jenny Thompson dislike her so intensely? Torres certainly seems personable enough when interviewed on TV.

Everything I've said here is either circumstantial evidence or hearsay. Do I have an actual smoking gun? No. Then again, nobody ever has a smoking gun unless they've witnessed someone taking PEDs, and who ever does that? And add up all the circumstantial and hearsay, and it's pretty overwhelming. Then throw in a dash of common sense and the experience the rest of us have had aging, and it's very hard to believe she's clean.


Anonymous said...

A few more thoughts on Dara -

Dara’s first comeback was for the 1992 Olympics. She took approximately two years off after the ’88 Olympics. Her best times from 1992 were almost identical to her bests from 1988. Giver her age at the time (~24) and the relative duration of her time off and re-training, those results are not suspicious – no eyebrows were raised.

Dara has taken seven years out of the pool, and is making a comeback at ~32 years old. Seventeen weeks (December 1999) into her comeback she swam a lifetime personal best of 25.32 in the 50 meter long course freestyle. Her previous best had been a 25.59 (?). At the elite level a few tenths of a second is an eternity. Five months into her comeback she had bettered her previous lifetime bests in the 50, 100, and 200 meter freestyle events. She closed the year with times of 24.63 and 54.43 (previous best 55.24 ?) in the 50 and 100 meter freestyle. Her 100 fly, as you pointed out, came out of nowhere, and was nearly a three second drop over her previous best.

Dara has taken approximately six years off, had a child, and starts swimming again, first appearing in masters meets. But its not long before the fireworks start. Now over 40 she is dropping time again. Closes the year with new PR’s of 24.06 and 53.76 in the 50 and 100 free. She also swam the second fastest 100 free relay split at the Olympics – 52.44 (the traditionally accepted difference between a ‘flat start’ and relay start is .7 seconds).

Hasn’t any other swimmer done something comparable?
No. Not even close. At the 2008 Olympics Dara had taken 13 of the last 16 years off from swimming, and was 40+ years old. No other top elite swimmer has taken those kinds of breaks, at that advanced age, and even been able to match previous performances. There are quite a few swimmers who took breaks and came back slower, including Olympic medalists Jeff Rouse and Jenny Thompson.

A picture is worth a thousand words:
Dara’s physical changes say it all. If you are not an athlete who has trained for years working to improve a race time, or haven’t been a swimming or track sports junkie – it might be difficult to appreciate just how improbable Dara’s late career results are. But anyone can see the complete change that has occurred in her physique. Quote from NY Times Magazine article says a lot: “Her posture is gangly, loose and cocky, like a teenage boy’s. Her proportions more closely resemble the long inverted triangle of Phelps — broad shoulders, long torso, slim hips, long arms — than the more tightly muscled curves of two of the biggest names in American women’s swimming, Natalie Coughlin and Katie Hoff.”

The excuse list:
Remember Michelle Smith? Her ascent to the pinnacle of women’s swimming in 1996 was suspicious at the time, and it drew attention. At one point she published a list of ~five reasons why she was able to make such great progress. Dara has had her excuse lists ready too. In 2000 it included pilates, new swimming stroke techniques, consumption of all the best legal supplements, etc. Of course none of the items on the list were explanations that plausibly set her so far apart from all the other women making a full commitment to elite training. In 2008 her excuse list included her stretching regimen, and she her entourage (she said she was surrounded by ‘good people’). Of course none of the other elite female swimmers had heard about stretching or had access to ‘good people’ – clearly these things set Dara apart.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for your comments. Your analysis is right on target.

Anonymous said...

Dara Torres, when she had her "comeback," I actually believed her story, knowing zip about juicing at the time. Oh my gosh! I am very disappointed by these athletes whom I thought were truly inspirational. What a letdown. I wasn't any great fan, but I thought her story was inspirational.