Dara Torres Took the Plunge at 41

During the 2008 Summer Olympics, we heard countless inspirational stories about the athletes who were there to compete. Every competitor was special and had an inspiring story of the determination, setbacks, and hard work that got them there. But I can't think of anyone more inspiring to me than Dara Torres. After winning her first Olympic gold medal 24 years prior, she had already come out of retirement twice, won nine Olympic medals, and became the first swimmer to quality for five Olympics games.

Age is Just a Number
Being in her 40’s also brought a new set of challenges for this Olympic athlete to contend with. As we age, our bodies need more recovery time after working out, and Torres is no different. She told Glamour magazine (where she was featured as one of "The 11 Greatest Bodies on Earth") that she has to keep her workouts shorter, which means they have to be very intense. And like the rest of us, she struggles with the workouts sometimes. She says there are days when she feels like she is swimming with a piano on her back.

Since I am just one year shy of 40 myself, it sounds younger all the time. But to be 41 and an Olympic athlete is very uncommon. The average age on the U.S. Swim team is 22.8 years—Torres had most of them beat by 18 years. In one TV interview, she talked about stepping onto the blocks to race. She looked at her teammates on her right and left and thought, "I am old enough to be their mom!"

And Torres is a mother. During her pregnancy with her daughter, who was two-years-old during the Beijing Olympics, she swam (non-competitively) for fun and to stay in shape. Although retired at the time, she was eager to get come out of retirement yet again. The moment after giving birth, Torres asked her doctor when she could start working out again! At the U.S. Olympic trials in July 2008, Torres told TIME magazine that she literally nursed her child before jumping on the blocks and racing. There, she set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle and won the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle race. She swam 2.47 seconds faster than her 1988 Olympic effort as a 20-year-old! Many people say that people get slower with age, and most female athletes reach their peaks before they're 25. Good thing Torres didn’t listen!

So What Keeps Torres Going?
She told Women's Health that “dreams can’t stop because you’ve hit a certain age or because you’ve had a child.”

After winning five medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Torres hung up her swimsuit for the second time and took seven years off. By 2006, she was getting the competitive itch again. By her own admission, racing is embedded in her. She simply loves to compete. Torres could have retired for good after her first, second, or third Olympics but she didn’t. She wanted to pursue the dream.

Like other athletes, she has also experienced her share of challenges outside the pool. She has known the heartbreak of two divorces (but is now happily married) and also struggled with bulimia throughout her first two Olympics. Now fully recovered, she admits that she still has to watch out for it. She told Women's Health that depriving herself can lead to problems. Today when she has a craving she goes ahead and eats. But with her level of training, she can afford to splurge a little more often!

How About You?
What limitations have you placed on yourself or allowed others to place on you? Have you used the excuse of age, size, work or parenthood to rob you of achieving something you have always dreamed of? If so, it's never too late. Now you may or may not win Olympic gold but you can get healthy, become fit or lose weight. Where would Torres be if she listened to everyone who told her that she can't? She's living proof that you do not have to give up on your dreams—whatever they may be.

In the August 4, 2008 issue of TIME magazine you’ll find Torres on the cover. In the story, she told the writer that she wanted to convey a single idea: She wanted the middle-aged women who look up to her to feel proud of themselves and believe that they could do whatever they set out to do!

Remember, it is never too late to be what you might have been. Believe in yourself and dream big!

Editor's Note: Check out this YouTube video about Dara Torres' comeback!