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.
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.
She got off to a blazing start and kept her lead on the furious return lap to win in 53.78 seconds.
"I'm ecstatic. I can't believe it," she said. 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. "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.
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.
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. "I was very surprised that I won, but I was happy," she said.