At 41 years old, Dara Torres became the first U.S. swimmer in history to compete in five Olympics stretching from 1984 to 2008. A 12-time medalist, she won three silvers in the 2008 Beijing Games, becoming one of only a handful of Olympians to earn medals in five different competitions.
During these Games, Dara faced press insinuations that somehow her remarkable performances were partially the result of the fully approved drugs she uses for asthma control giving her an edge. What the queries failed to take into account is the common knowledge that a minimum of 1 out of 4 Olympic swimmers (1 out of 3 on the 2008 Aussie team!) have exercise-induced asthma—and must use some kind of asthma medication.
Dara was quoted as saying “Basically I don’t why people are making such a big deal about it (asthma medication). It allows me to have the same breathing capacity as my competitors.”
What’s most instructive for young athletes with asthma, though, is the behind-the-scenes story about how Dara “officially” discovered, once and for all, she has had asthma since childhood.
As a young swimmer, Dara frequently had a morning cough that worsened with swimming. Her cough was especially prevalent when she swam in indoor facilities, which Dara thought might be due to poor air circulation and humidity. Dara and her parents attributed the cough to an “allergy to chlorine” and her “make-up”. While her dad coughed frequently, they always blamed that on his occupational exposure to cigarette smoke.
Throughout all of her early training years, Dara’s coaches never recognized asthma as a possible underlying cause of her repetitive cough and, at times, decreased stamina. Everyone thought she was just a “drop dead sprinter”.
In 1992, at the age of 25, Dara retired. She could no longer attribute her symptoms to her “make-up” or chlorine sensitivity. She became increasingly winded and short of breath; her stamina declined. At times, Dara felt like she was “going to die” during races.
Eight years later at 33, aspiring to make an Olympic comeback in 2000, Dara went in for a comprehensive pulmonary evaluation at Stanford with a physician who works specifically with divers and athletes. She was diagnosed to have asthma and exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
After starting on a daily maintenance regimen of asthma control medication and a bronchodilator prior to practices and competitions, there was a very dramatic improvement in Dara’s quality of life – and a major change in her level of performance. She went from being “drop-dead sprinter” to “best finisher”.
Now, with the proper diagnosis and good asthma control, Dara has been able to reach her full competitive potential to bring it home faster than she ever has – and the rest is history, as we all know.
What tips might one of America’s Olympic greats pass on to young swimmers with asthma?
What she has found helpful in terms of improving both her asthma and stamina are underwater exercises and training herself to hold her breath under water for longer and longer periods of time.
She eats a well-balanced diet with “a lot of protein” and likes ample rest (although limited at times due to a three-year old at home) to properly nurture her athletic body.
Always very in tune with her body, Dara continues to go for check-ups with her local pulmonologist every six months.
Her asthma is under good control now with a daily combination inhaler, which she makes sure to take at least two hours before a meet or a warm-up. The Olympian supplements this with a fast-acting bronchodilator just prior to competitions.
Dara steps up her regimen when she has a cold or upper respiratory infection as her asthma becomes much worse during this time. Excessive humidity and heavily chlorinated environments seem to trigger symptoms so Dara proactively adjusts her medication when she anticipates that type of environment.
Although Michael Phelps was the swim star for the Americans in China, Torres’ three silvers are nothing to sneeze at, so what about 2012? According to a February 2009 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, Torres says 2012 in London is a possibility, depending on how her body handles the next few years. No matter what, she plans on continuing to swim.
“I’m so used to kids coming up and asking me for autographs, and now I have middle-aged people coming up to talk to me,” she says. “I like hearing their stories. I hope what I’ve done has helped inspire other people to do things they thought they were too old to do.”