NEW YORK (Reuters) - Olympic swimming heroine Dara Torres pauses, her delicate hazel eyes narrow, and she stares at a tiny puddle of water that has splashed out of the pool.
The inspirational 42-year-old Floridian badly wants to compete at the London Olympics in 2012 but ponders the potential deal-breakers -- her age, her health and her devotion to her three-year-old daughter Tessa.
”I have a little less than a year to figure it out what I want to do,“ she said. ”I really want my knee to heal and want to get my legs back in shape.
“Then I’ll talk to my coach and go from there. It’s a big commitment but I’ve done it before and I know how to do it. It’s just a matter if my body will hold up.”
At nearly 6-feet tall (1.82m) with abs sculpted like a weightlifter, Dara Grace Torres has pin-up good looks and appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 1994.
She is also a brilliant motivator, proving to an older population that throwing in the towel to the younger generation can be delayed through desire and hard work.
But most of all, Torres is a swimmer, a lithe 12-times Olympic medallist, including four golds, whose drive to touch the wall first is unrivalled.
She has won at least one medal in each of the five Games in which she has competed, including three silvers in Beijing last year at the age of 41.
That is why Torres bristles at finishing eighth in the 50-meter freestyle at the world championships in Rome earlier this month.
”I‘m very competitive. I always want to win,“ Torres told Reuters recently at the Asphalt Green pool in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. ”That’s not what I was hoping to do when I went to the world championships.
”But you need to be realistic sometimes. I had a long talk with my coach (Michael Lohberg). He said, ‘Dara, you had so many distractions. How can you be at the top of your game when that’s the case?’
“When he puts it into perspective it helps. A little bit at least.”
While Torres had her mind focused solely on the Beijing Games last year, prior to Rome she wrote a book, was a frequent motivational speaker, and made scores of other appearances.
Plus, she has a knee injury, basically bone on bone. It is arthritic and “has defects.”
“I‘m going to have to get that fixed,” she said. “Even if I want to have a normal life. I go up and down stairs and it hurts.”
Torres is thrilled that FINA, the sport’s international governing body, is to ban polyurethane-based suits in 2010. Forty-three records fell in Rome and FINA decided the hi-tech suits played too much of a role.
Speedo, did not have as much polyurethane in their suits as the Italian-based manufacturer, Jaked, so Torres briefly jumped ship from her sponsor and wore the suit of Speedo’s rival during the freestyle heats.
The whole affair was unsettling for Torres, a lifelong Speedo devotee.
“I‘m excited because sometimes those suits can aid swimmers that don’t have the best or most efficient strokes,” she said. “We’ll now get to see who the best swimmers are.”
Many athletes adopt a slower pace following an Olympic year but Torres continues to sprint, whether it is throwing out a ceremonial pitch at a baseball game or trying to inspire a legion of corporate workers.
She is working with the energy company BP on a “Younger for Longer” online contest (www.bpinvigorate.com) and has launched her own Twitter account that has more than 6,000 followers.
However, by next summer Torres just might feel that itch to try for her sixth Olympics in a quest to add to her career haul of four gold, four silver, four bronze medals.
She concedes her training regimen has changed since her first Olympics 25 years ago in Los Angeles. Torres knows all about comebacks, having sat out the 1996 and 2004 Games.
”It’s much different than when I was younger,“ she said. ”When you’re younger you feel invincible. When you get older you’re definitely more prone to injury.
”When I first made this comeback a few years ago, I wanted to do what the 20-year-olds were doing. I realized pretty quickly that I can’t do what they’re doing, at least as far as training goes.
“So I went from about nine workouts to five workouts a week.”
Torres maintains a great relationship with compatriot Michael Phelps, 24, who grabbed a record eight gold medals in Beijing. They are team mates but the age difference is not lost on either of them.
”He’s a good kid. He calls me ‘Mom’ and I call him ‘Son,’ she said with a laugh.
Editing by Dave Thompson