If you ever need motivation to slide off the couch and hit the gym, just think of Dara Torres.
At 45, the superstar swimmer has been training feverishly to make her sixth Olympic swim team at London's Summer Games. Her event: the 50-meter freestyle, which is one frenzied lap. The swimmer (and model, TV sports commentator, author, and mother of 6-year-old Tessa, with ex-boyfriend David Hoffman) loves a challenge, but she's had some tough ones thrown her way in the past few years.
In 2009, she underwent major knee surgery for arthritis and had to take off a year to recover. Last year, her coach, Michael Lohberg, whom she adored, died at 61 from a rare blood disorder. And she has found that her body—as insanely fit as it is—doesn't bounce back from training as fast as it did a few years ago.
So this time around, she's shaking things up and taking a more scientific approach. In her adopted hometown of Coral Springs, Florida, she's assembled a team that includes a naturopathic doctor, a cook ("because it's just me and Tessa, and she wants mac 'n' cheese every night"), a nutritionist, and a pair of therapists who stretch her for two hours post-workout. Recently, she even saw a specialist who analyzed her eye movements and prescribed exercises to improve her motion sickness. Fun and games? Actually—surprisingly—yes.
Over a dinner of steak and Yukon gold potatoes one night in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Olympic Trials, which start in late June (if she comes in first or second, she goes to London), the funny, down-to-earth athlete talked about what she eats, how she got those killer abs, and what it's like to share the pool with a bunch of 20-year-olds.
Q: If you compete in London, you'll be the oldest female Olympic swimmer ever—how do you feel about that?
A: "You know what? To me, it's an honor. People say, 'You must get sick of everyone talking about your age,' but it really doesn't bother me."
Q: So it doesn't psych you out to be competing against people half your age?
"Not many things psych me out! [Laughs] I just try to have fun. I mean, I definitely have aches and pains that most middle-aged people have. What's funny is that I listen to music before I swim a race and while I train. And I'm surrounded by teenagers—everything is hip-hop for them. So I've really gotten into the hip-hop scene! I'll always have my classic rock—the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Who—but I've made some other playlists with Kanye West, Rihanna, Jay-Z..."
Q: How did changing your weight-training strategy in 2006 help improve your swimming?
A: "My old school of training was the heavier you lift in the weight room, the stronger you'll be in the water, but I felt like I was sinking because I had so much bulk on me. When my strength coach first came to see me, he said, 'If you're using every muscle in the pool, why shouldn't you use every muscle in the weight room?' Now my core is involved and the stuff I do really elongates my body, and I don't feel so heavy in the water."
Q: Dara, the entire nation is obsessed with your abs. We want to know your secrets.
A: "OK, the first thing is genetics. My brother and I, our body types are exactly the same: ripped abs, big arms, skinny legs. And the second thing is my training. As far as ab sets, the most I do is maybe 30 reps, but there are always some kind of rotational movements using my core while I'm working out. And I train extremely hard, so that's why my abs are so strong—I use my core in almost every exercise I do."
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Q: There's so much pressure on you. How do you sleep the night before a big race?
A: "It's called Ambien."
Q: Do you really?
A: "Oh, yeah. There are a lot of athletes who will take it if they need to fall asleep before they compete—because you're thinking about your race and you're tossing and turning. I'll take an Ambien if I'm having a really hard time going to sleep."
Q: But the next day is the Olympics—aren't you groggy?
A: "No, I feel pretty good. It's not like I'm doing it all the time, but it definitely helps you to conk out."
Q: How do you deal with jitters in general? Any tricks?
A: "I always feel sick to my stomach before I swim. But the minute I'm on the block, everything is calm and I'm ready to go. The way I look at it is, 'I've done everything I can at this point, I should just enjoy it.' That takes the pressure off."
Q: Let's talk about food. How much wiggle room do you have for splurges?
A: "Women are going to hate hearing this, but I just have a really good metabolism. So did my mom. I used to take advantage of that and eat whatever I wanted. It's different now. This is my last Olympics and I need to give it 100 percent. But I told myself that this summer—when I'm done training for good—I'm going to go back to drinking Coke Slurpees."
Q: Even with a fabulous metabolism, do you ever have days where you feel fat?
A: "Oh yeah. And in my cycle, absolutely. I just got it a few days ago, and I was like, 'Why is my stomach so bloated? Oh, hello.' Other people may not see it, but I do. That's the other thing that's interesting—working with a naturopathic doctor, I know that there are certain times in my cycle where my hormones are so low that if I train hard, it will take me forever to recover. So I actually have to let my nice 30-something male coach know so he doesn't train me hard during those times."
Q: You've talked about battling bulimia during the early part of your career. Any regrets about coming clean?
A: "No. I wrote about it in my book because I wanted people to know me and not just, 'I'm first place.' I had such a fear of food for so long, but I finally got over it."
Q: What's your biggest energy sapper?
A: "Probably being in the sun too much. I take my dog, Scarlett, to the beach on Sundays, and I'm in the sun every day anyway with my training. I never go outside before I'm going to swim in a meet."
Q: You're very competitive—for you, second place is losing! But what about outside the world of swimming? Are you the type that says, 'Lady, I'm taking that parking space,' and jams on the gas?
A: "Constantly! [Laughs] It's just in my makeup. It doesn't matter if it's in the pool or in a parking lot, I always have to be first—it's ridiculous. I have bets with friends all the time. I just have to win. I'm hoping when I hang up my suit to dry this summer that it will go away."
Q: What's motivating you this time? Why keep proving yourself?
A: "I don't think I have to prove anything anymore. It's just the fact that I love challenges, and this is a huge one I'm taking on—much more so than four years ago. My coach and I had spoken about taking on this challenge before he passed away, and I want to finish what we talked about. Plus, the fact that so many people come up to me and say I inspire them really gets me going. I want to still give people hope that they can do the things that they thought, maybe, they couldn't do."