41-year-old swimmer qualifies for Olympics

OMAHA, Nebraska (AP) — Dara Torres’ eyes were watery and not from just having climbed out of the pool. She was crying at the cheers from 13,247 fans who saw the 41-year-old mother complete her improbable Olympic comeback.

Dara Torres celebrates victory in the women’s 100-meter freestyle final at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

Torres made the U.S. Olympic swimming team for a record fifth time Friday night, winning the 100-meter freestyle over Natalie Coughlin at the trials.

A thrilling performance that prompted the crowd to applaud Torres as the new face of middle-aged, weekend warriors everywhere. Toned and tanned, with a flat stomach, she hardly looks like she’s been away since the 2000 Sydney Games, her last Olympic appearance.

“That really, really, really hurt,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Where is the wall?”‘

She got off to a blazing start and kept her lead on the furious return lap to win in 53.78 seconds, defeating 25-year-old Natalie Coughlin.

“I’m ecstatic. I can’t believe it,” Torres said, explaining she had anticipated finishing anywhere from third through sixth.

“I could not see the scoreboard. I didn’t know that I had won it at first. They need to make those numbers a little bigger for people my age.”

Torres became the oldest American swimmer ever on an Olympic team. She’ll be the oldest female swimmer at the Games since 44-year-old Brenda Holmes of Canada in 1972.

Michael Phelps was suitably impressed with his teammate from the 2000 squad.

“As I call her, my mom,” he said. “She’s 41 with a kid. It’s extremely impressive.”

“Don’t make it sound that old,” chided Bob Bowman, Phelps’ 43-year-old coach.

Torres shied away from Phelps calling her Mom.

“I like to refer to it as a big sister,” she said.

After the race, Torres’ cell phone was clogged with 115 messages, texts and calls.

Before leaving the pool deck, she sat down to reflect and thought immediately of her father Edward, who died 11/2 years ago.

“I hadn’t told him I was making a comeback after I had already started, and I was feeling like he was with me on that race and kind of helped me at the end of it,” she said.

“I was also thinking about my daughter and my family that was in the stands. I was trying to hold a brave face while I was out there because I didn’t want anyone to see my crying.”

At the awards ceremony, Torres held her 2-year-old daughter, Tessa, in her arms. The blonde girl clutched the teddy bear given to team members in one hand and waved a bouquet of flowers in the other.

Torres put her victory medal around Tessa’s neck, but the girl promptly took it off and gave it back.

“It’s sort of bittersweet for me because I’ve made my fifth Olympic team, but I’m going to be away from my daughter for a month and that’s really hard emotionally,” Torres said.

Tessa might not have understood what all the fuss was about, but the crowd sure did.

“It was an unbelievable crowd,” Torres said. “It was just so much fun to go out there and race.”

Torres, who made her Olympic debut at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, has twice retired from competitive swimming. She owns nine medals, including five from Sydney, where she was the most decorated female athlete.

Torres arrived at these trials knowing people would wonder how someone her age could possibly make it to the Olympics without some sort of illicit help.

She endured those whispers in Sydney, where she won two gold medals and three bronzes at age 33, and it ticked her off.

That’s why she volunteered for extra drug testing this time around. She was accepted into a new program that focuses on a dozen athletes in different sports, subjecting them to additional testing and the latest technology.

Since March, she’s been tested at least a dozen times, with testers drawing five vials of blood from her body each time to look for the telltale signs of illegal drugs.

“Anyone who makes any accusations, I take it as a compliment,” she said.

Torres might appear ageless, but she’s endured her share of physical problems.

A nagging shoulder injury required surgery last November to fix a bone spur that was digging into her rotator cuff. Still recovering from that operation, she had knee surgery in mid-January to remove another persistent ache.

Unlike her younger teammates, Torres needs a long time after her races to recover. She employs a team of stretchers and coaches and nutritionists who cost her tens of thousands of dollars but have played pivotal roles in getting her back to the Olympics.

“Her stroke is better now than in 2000,” Bowman said. “Now, she’s more finesse-like. She’s using her technique more than her strength.”

Torres still has the 50 free — her main event — remaining Sunday. Depending on how she fares, she might give up her spot in the 100 in Beijing to third-place finisher Lacey Nymeyer. That would leave Torres with one individual event and the 400 free relay.

“I’m not going to make any decisions yet,” she said. “My body’s a little bit beat up right now.”

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