You think you're fit? At 41, swimmer Dara Torres just qualified for her fifth Olympic Games. Since she made her Olympic debut in 1984, Torres has won nine medals, including four golds. (She also competed in 1988, 1992 and 2000.) She is set to try again in the 50-meter freestyle, the 4-by-100-meter medley relay and the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay. She has the option to also compete in the 100-meter freestyle. Last August, after taking a seven-year break and recovering from back and knee surgery—and just 15 months after giving birth to her first child—Torres won the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals. She's not the first oldster to excel: Discus thrower Al Oerter won Olympic gold in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968, and Carl Lewis won it in 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996; both were in their early 30s for their final games. But Torres is still an anomaly. She submits to voluntary extra testing in order to combat the inevitable rumors of performance-enhancing drugs (and has never tested positive). So what does explain her astonishing feats? Newsweek's Karen Springen talked with Carl Foster, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, about how aging athletes like Torres can still do it. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Does this astound you?
Carl Foster: I'm not terribly surprised. No. 1, the best predictor of very high-level performance is the fact you've done it before. Elite athletes are elite athletes, and they're a different kind of animal. She's an extraordinary athlete. No. 2, your body is sort of like your car. If you drive it enough, it gets dinged up. After a while, your car is beat up even if you never had a big wreck. The same sort of thing is true for an athlete. They're performing at such high levels, and they're training so hard, that even if they never have a catastrophic injury, they just wind up with a lot of little injuries that sort of accumulate. At some point, they retire and can't compete any more. She apparently had a period of retirement. In some ways, you can say she's not as old as 41 in terms of accumulated injuries, or mileage. The other reason people retire is that normal life gets in the way. You get a normal life, you get a family. It gets harder to do the kinds of things you need to do to prepare for an elite competition. Where is the time to do the practice?
So it's not so much her age as her mileage that matters?
That's a simple way to say it. A lot of athletes wind up with just lots of little injuries so it's not fun anymore. They wind up dropping out of sports. Other people manage to not accumulate that many injuries, or they figure out how to deal with it. Again, for me, I was an athlete as a kid, but I was no good. I could train until I was blue in the face, but I'm still going to be no good. But if I were talented and I could figure out how to do it without injuries or other elements in my lifestyle that make me stop, then certainly in the 40s it's doable. We just saw an example of it. There's a famous Olympian named Al Oerter, a discus thrower. Between the Olympics, he had very low-level performances. In his opinion, an elite athlete had four, five or six years at the top. Most people take them continuously. In his case, he took breaks.
Don't you lose muscle mass with age?
You probably start losing it, but not in a big way until your 40s, if you're able to do the training. The problem is most people stop training, so you're both aging and becoming more sedentary. That's what happens to most of us. We might weigh the same, but it's redistributed. In the case of Torres, she apparently had retired, but I heard rumors that she stayed very fit. But again, she's also an exquisitely talented athlete, and that's what it takes to come back. You could just as easily argue that Carl Lewis could come back. I don't know that he could, but it wouldn't astound me.
What happens in the 40s that makes you start declining in athletic ability?
There is an aging curve, and it starts around 40. Every decade after that, extra pieces fall off. After age 60, aerobic capacity really drops off. Somewhere out about 60, it just seems like the motor doesn't work as well. Anybody who has competed into adulthood will tell you they get more fragile, training takes longer to recover from. Anybody in their 30s and 40s will say, "I have to train more carefully. I can't just go beat myself up," which they used to be able to do.
So Torres is not going to be heading to the Olympics at 60?
I'd be surprised.
What about lung capacity in older athletes? Conventional wisdom has it that it's sometimes better to be older in longer-distance track and swimming events. But Torres is winning sprints.
The data are that in early middle age, most of the loss that normal people see is probably as much changes in lifestyle as it is aging per se. The good data are very thin, so you can't say there's a study proving this, but most athletes will tell you that it takes them longer to recover from training probably after their mid-20s. But they get the same performance results.
Do you think Torres' lung capacity is declining?
She's a very young woman in the larger scheme of things. The data is that around age 60, inevitable physical changes seem to occur. From the perspective of what we know about aging, she's a young woman.
But many of the rest of us feel old after we hit 40. Why?
Part of that is just we're sitting on our bottoms. People who go to the Olympics are extraordinary examples of the human species. They can do things that the rest of us can hardly dream of doing. You don't lose that. Whatever it is that makes that, it's very clear that the very highest level of athletes, you have to have talent to begin with. There's a lot of people who've trained it very hard, and the talent ain't there. She obviously has both.
Is swimming easier on the body than other sports?
Swimming, there's an enormous amount of repetitive injury. You're not landing like you are as a jogger. But by the same token, they're training so hard. I believe she just had shoulder surgery. The butterfly, which was a good stroke for her, she says, "I can't do it anymore because my shoulder still hurts, but I can still do the freestyle."
Are injuries are a bigger deal than her age?
Yes. She just managed to work around that.
In the old Soviet days, there were reports of swimmers who were forced to get pregnant and then abort because the theory was that pregnancy hormones made them stronger. Could pregnancy actually make women physically stronger?
There was not the documentation for that. The pregnancy thing, that's more of an urban legend. When you think about swimming, you think of it as a fitness sport for you and me. But at the level they're competing, it's as much of a skill sport, being able to get hold of the water and pull it is a remarkable skill. A lot of their practice is to get a feel for the water. Now you've got a person, a woman who's another two or three years older because she has a kid, that skill is still there. I don't think pregnancy has anything to do with it. It's a matter that you've had more time in your life to practice.
So practice makes perfect in a skill sport?
Yes. And you're more mature. You see the same thing in track and field. A lot of female athletes come back after they have kids. You lead a more focused lifestyle. You don't waste energy.
Torres has never tested positive and is part of an in-depth testing program. But with many elite athletes, performance-enhancing drugs are a factor, right?
They're a fact of life. They're out there. Our culture has become very cynical about it. Do you presume that people are guilty before they're convicted? That's a very bad thing that's happened in society. The man in the street—and I guess that includes most reporters—says the only way you could do this is she must be dirty. Again, she's very talented, she probably leads a very organized lifestyle. You've got to have extraordinary talent, be very organized about training and lifestyle, and avoid injuries. You have to have all of them together. If you do, then you can get results.
Is there anything athletes can take that would not show up on tests?
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is as good as it gets. They're at the edge of the curve. It's impossible to ever prove that somebody is innocent. By the same token, it's impossible to do more than Torres is doing. This person is fully participating in all the drug-testing programs; she's in an accelerated protocol. They're doing that to try to make things even better. The athletes are under notice 24-7, 365. At any moment of the day, you can get a knock on your door. You think about your own lifestyle, any moment of any day, someone can come knocking on the door saying I need you to provide a sample for me. If you're going to be an elite athlete under the USADA protocol, you must participate. The standard protocol is primarily urine testing. She's doing blood testing. She's doing what is as close to the ideal protocol as we have today.
She is a great role model for us all?
Yeah. The problem is that culturally we're just cynical right now. Maybe we shouldn't be. These are unique humans, regardless of your sport. They're doing things that the rest of us can't perceive of doing. It's like Pablo Picasso. He could put things on canvas that a lot of artists just can't do. Look at Mozart. That's the same thing that happens at the Olympics, you've got extraordinary athletes who've dedicated their lives to doing extraordinary things.
Others have tried unsuccessfully to make comebacks at an older age, right?
Life got in the way or injuries got in the way. [Marathoner] Joan Benoit Samuelson is a good example. Before she won in '84, she came back from knee surgery. The margin of error, the difference between first and 10th at that level of competition, is so small.
So how did Torres do it?
It took smarts to get there, and a certain amount of luck. She probably had to train a lot more carefully than a 19-year-old does. A 19-year-old just pops in the water. When you're 40, you've got to think about "I did this today, what am I going to do tomorrow. I'm not going to recover in the same way as I did when I was 19."
How old are you, and are you feeling a decline?
Sixty. I felt it when I was 50. I was a soccer player.
With Torres so fantastic in her 40s, does that mean the rest of us can't use age as an excuse?
At least not into her age range. The problem is most of the rest of us are sitting on our bottoms.
So we should blame ourselves, not our age?