NEW YORK – Instead of nostalgically gazing at a trophy case full of dusty medals, some retired Olympians are going for the gold again.
Track legend Edwin Moses (search), 48, and swimming champ Jeff Rouse (search), 33, are training hard to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games. But while their resolve hasn't faded, do these athletes have a shot to medal in events where being over 30 is considered over-the-hill?
"If they had the same body back when they were great, they’d be better now than then,” said Dr. Bill Clancy, an orthopedic surgeon who once worked for the U.S. Olympic hockey and ski teams. “[But] there are so many individuals out there who are younger and training at the highest level, it’s unlikely they can get back and compete at that level.”
But the doubts don't discourage these athletes who are well aware of the challenges ahead.
"My goal is the Olympic Trials standard. I'm totally realistic about what I think I can do," Moses, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, said when announcing his comeback Aug. 31. "I think I have the power mentally. The question is going to be physically will it be able to happen."
Moses announced his return to the track on his 48th birthday and the 20th anniversary of his last world-record run, still the second-best time in history.
And after six dry years, three-time Olympic medal-winning swimmer Jeff Rouse (search) said he's hoping to make the 2004 team.
“I got curious about what it would be to compete again, how fast could I swim ... what it would be like at an advanced age with so much time off?" he said. "The driving factor is to discover some of the answers to these questions.”
Moses too emphasized that the mind is an all-important muscle for athletes. "The mind drives the body in athletics. You can be the strongest guy in the 100 meters and come in dead last," he said.
That craving to compete is a major motivation for athletes to make a comeback, said Deborah Graham, a sports psychologist who counsels pro athletes.
“When they go on to do other things, they may have satisfaction but don’t get the same feelings they had in competition,” she said. “Where else can you get that high of competition, especially at the elite level?”
U.S. swimmer Dara Torres (search) knows all about the longing for competition. She medaled in three Olympic games, in 1984, 1998 and 1992, and then retired. But after seven years out of the pool Torres got an itch for swimming that only the highest form of competition could scratch.
She returned to a grueling training schedule and qualified for the 2000 Sydney games.
“I had a huge advantage; I had been there before, I was older, I could handle it," she said.
While some of Torres' competitors were practically young enough to be her children, that was no deterrent, she said, recalling a 15-year-old swimmer who remarked, “I wasn’t even born when you swam in your first Olympics.”
But age didn’t matter when the starting pistol fired: The then 33-year-old won five medals.
Rouse, who held the world record in the 100-meter backstroke for eight years, also sees an advantage to having a few years on his competitors.
“I’m much less scared now,” he said. “I have nothing to lose. I want to make the Olympic team and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think I could make it.”
But returning champions going head-to-head with younger athletes face the potential of an embarrassing knockdown from their previous pedestal.
Swimmer Mark Spitz (search), who won an all-time record seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics, tried to qualify for the 1992 summer games in Barcelona. But Spitz, then 41, failed to qualify.
While Clancy said the likelihood that a runner as old as Moses will qualify for the 2004 games is slim, it's inspirational to see him try.
"Everyone has their own personal challenges they want to do, and if he succeeds people will be shocked and think, ‘How can he do that at this age?'" he said. "It’s very inspiring to middle-age people who think they are over-the-hill.”