Going for Gold
If Olympic swimmer Dara Torres gives you advice on getting into physical shape as you age, you listen. She knows what it means to set a goal for yourself and achieve it. She’s been doing it since she started swimming at age seven in Southern California.
At age 14, Torres won her first national title. At 17, she won her first Olympic medals at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, picking up more medals along the way.
Early on in her competitive swimming career, she was obsessed with working out. “When I was younger, obviously, my goals were different—don’t miss any workouts, don’t miss weight training, don’t miss training in the pool.” If she did miss a session, according to Torres, “I was ‘oh my gosh, I missed it’, and I would be sitting at home thinking I had to go out and exercise.”
Never Too Old
The world was dubious when Torres decided to try out for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team. She was already 33 years old and hadn’t swam competitively for seven years. That didn’t stop her. She won five medals at the Sydney Summer Games. In 2008, at the Beijing Summer Games, she swam in her fifth Olympics, a record, and she won another medal, bringing her total to 12—four gold, four silver, and four bronze. At age 41, Torres became the oldest U.S. Olympic swimmer in history.
Torres wrote about her experience as the oldest member of the Olympic team in her book Age is Just a Number. StrongPath asked about this line in the book: “Most of us fear middle age because middle age is when most of us give up on ourselves.”
“A long time ago, middle age used to be in your 40s. Then it was 50s, then late 50s, then older. I don’t think most people think of middle age as a number; it is what you feel,” said Torres. “So, when people would say ‘oh you can’t do that anymore, you are middle age’, and I was in my 40s training for the Olympics, I just didn’t listen to that talk. That’s not how I feel, so why should I think I am middle age. It’s not just dealing with it physically; a lot of it is in the mind.”
Best Shape of Her Life
She worked hard, and it paid off, not just in medals. “I was in the best shape of my life in my 40s,” Torres told StrongPath. Over the past decade, she has seen physical changes in her body. “When you’re younger, you just keep going and going. I am now in my 50s and I realize when you get older, your body doesn’t recover as quickly and you’re more prone to injury.”
Sarcopenia—the body’s natural loss of muscle density—effects everyone, usually starting in your 40s. Being a competitive athlete doesn’t stop it from happening. “You lose muscle more quickly than you did in the past. It can get a little bit frustrating. That is aging; that is life. You can’t stop it, but you try to do everything you can to slow down the process.”
Torres said that strength conditioning is the key to getting strong and remaining flexible as you age. “I try to exercise five days a week. It is not as intense as it used to be. As you get older, you want to do more strength work. I probably lift weights twice a week. I box a couple times a week. I swim a couple times a week. I do the barre method four times a week.”
She has gone as far as investing in a barre studio in Massachusetts, and is training to teach classes, because she likes that you can use your own body weight to build strength. “The type of class we teach is an overall body toning class, core strengthening, with hand weights. The rest is body weight.”
Setting New Goals
Torres no longer swims competitively, though some people still expect her to. “When I go swimming, people want me to race them, and I don’t. I just swim for exercise,” she told us. Her reason for working out now is to live the best second half of her life that she can. “What I tell people is to start slow, especially if you haven’t worked out a lot or you are trying a new workout. Start slow and build into it. Listen to what your body is saying. If you are super-sore, and it’s not the kind of sore you can work through, then take the day off. It’s okay to let your body recover.”
Setting goals keeps Torres going. “They don’t have to be big goals, just little things that keep you motivated. I was like that when I competed, and I am like that now. But it’s okay if there is a hiccup in your goal.”
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