Review: Dara Torres ‘Age is Just a Number’

She became an American icon in the 2008 Olympics — well after she already was one of the best swimmers in U.S. history.

But there is something we love about a comeback story, about people doing things which our collective conventional wisdom tells us is unpopular or even undesirable. And that’s why so many of us fell in love with the story of Dara Torres. At age 41 she became the oldest swimmer to win an Olympic medal and while her journey was personal, it inspired pretty much anyone at any age who had been told they couldn’t (or shouldn’t do something).

Her memoir “Age is Just  A Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage of Your Life,” was published last year. Written with the help of New York Times Magazine writer Elizabeth Weil, Torres tells the story of her improbably middle-age comeback at the 2008 Olympics.

Those of us with only cursory knowledge of the swimming world (that is, we pay most attention every four years) probably didn’t realize that Torres had not one comeback — but three. Torres competed in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics then retired from swimming, as most do once they hit their early 20s. And so Torres graduated from college, moved to New York and held the very unglamorous job as a production assistant at NBC Sports. At age 24 she made her first comeback for the 1992 Games. She was 33 when she made her next comeback for the 2000 Olympics.

But as she describes in the book, each comeback had a different feel. Her first return to the pool was driven in part by her desire to keep swimming. Her second comeback had the fuel of unfinished business in the pool. Her comeback at age 41 after having her first child? That was born organically from her desire to swim and keep fit during her pregnancy to answering the little question in her head that kept asking her how fast could she go?

Torres describes the swimmer’s lifestyle and world throughout the book and takes the reader into some of her personal places, including her battle with an eating disorder, the death of her father, and her failed relationships.

As with most memoirs written by elite athletes, the style is simple and the arch of the story takes precedence. People want to know why and how she competed in her fifth Olympics at the age of 41. And she tells us plainly her journey through swimming, part of her journey through life. Part of the ultimate message revolves around knowing yourself — understanding your own motivations, your own needs both mentally and physically.

While we can never swim like Dara Torres, it is comforting to know she often struggles with her workouts just like the rest of us, that she has to work on her mental toughness, too, despite her speed and skill. Her story is interesting, but it is the moments when she lets herself be self-reflexive that she most connects with her readers:

“Don’t you feel terrible in the water?” people would ask, “You know, being so old and out of the water for so many years?”

Questions like that really bothered me until I realized they had very little to do with me. Our whole culture is so terrified of growing older, so sure that life goes to hell progressively once you pass age 25 or 30 or 35 — whatever number people have stuck on their heads. But I came to see such negativity as a reflection of other peoples fears about life, a window into the ways in which so many of us are limiting ourselves and selling ourselves short. I decided … not to live that way. I chose not to let age stop me.

You can take Dara’s story at face value — as a nice tale about a swimmer who kept coming back — or you can take it as inspiration. If you let the book take you there, you can find yourself asking, “What would I do today if I didn’t think about my age?”

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~ by amymoritz on August 18, 2010.

One Response to “Review: Dara Torres ‘Age is Just a Number’”

  1. Love the quote from Dara, especially today!!!!! Thanks,…the timing was perfect.

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