Dara Torres posing with her teammates (from left) Natalie Coughlin, Kara Lynn Joyce, Lacey Nymeyer and their silver medals after finishing second in the women's 4x100 meters freestyle relay on Sunday. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters )
Getting faster, higher, stronger, older
By Gina Kolata for International Herald Tribune
Published: August 12, 2008
At the age of 41, the American swimmer Dara Torres seems to have broken new ground, showing that it is possible for athletes to continue to compete at the highest levels, even making Olympic teams, at advanced ages.
But, exercise physiologists say, the conventional wisdom about age and sports is more urban legend than fact. Not only were there Dara Torreses in the past, these experts say, but they also predict that stories like hers will be more common in the future. The reasons are an infusion of money into many sports, combined with improvements in sports medicine and training.
Exercise researchers cite athlete after athlete who competed at ages when conventional wisdom said they should have been washed up. Even sprinters, widely believed to reach their peak performances in their early 20s and decline a few years later, have defied expectations. In fact, said José González-Alonso, director of the Center for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University, near London, the notion about sprinters' peaking early might have no basis in science.
In the last century, there were sprinters like Donald Finlay of Britain, who came in fourth in the 110-meter hurdles in the 1948 Olympics at the age of 39. More recently, the sprinter Merlene Ottey competed in seven Olympics, including the Athens Games in 2004, and won a total of eight medals. She turned 48 in May.
Of course, it is not easy to keep competing year after year.
"It has to be someone who is very, very driven and injury-free," González-Alonso said. "The hardest thing is to have the motivation to train well."
As years go by, many tire of the discipline, said Michael Joyner, an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic. "How much do you want to suffer every day?" he asked.
But in the end, whether an athlete can continue often comes down to money. And one reason coaches and exercise researchers expect to see many older Olympians in the future is that for the first time in many sports, athletes are finding that they can make a living by competing.
Joyner offered swimming as an example. Elite swimmers cannot just go out and train themselves. They need a coach, a 50-meter pool and the financial support to be able to spend up to five hours a day training. Such a schedule makes it difficult to hold a full-time job.
Until recently, that meant that elite swimmers were in high school or college. After college, it became impossible to train without a team, and most swimmers felt they had to earn a living some other way.
No more, said Frank Busch, an Olympic swimming coach who said companies were now supporting swimmers. "You're seeing the age of the Olympic team continue to get older," Busch said. Now, he said, 90 percent of U. S. Olympic swimmers were professional athletes. In contrast to what happened in the past, very few high school and college students are on the team and it is common for Olympic swimmers to be in their mid- to late-20s.
"Pro swimming has changed the whole scene," Busch said.
Sandy Neilson, an Olympic swimmer who won three gold medals in 1972, watched the transformation happen.
"Back when I was 16, there weren't scholarships for women," Neilson said. "It was unheard of out of college. Things really started to change between 1984 and 1988 to allow the athletes to receive money without losing their amateur status."
She decided to take advantage of the change and return to the sport, coached by her husband.
In 1984, Neilson was named US Swimming's national comeback swimmer of the year. Now, at the age of 40 and as a mother of four, she seeks to maintain that competitive edge.
"It's something no one else has done," she said. "I believe I can go faster. My training hasn't been what it needs to be. There's room for improvement. I'm not looking at the 40-year-old wall. Life goes on after 40."
In addition to money, sports medicine has made a difference, said Joyner, the exercise researcher. Older athletes may be more prone to injuries, but today's medicine allows them to recover quicker. "Knee surgery used to be medieval," he said. But now, athletes can go back to training almost immediately.
So have improved training techniques, González-Alonso said. Athletes today train better and have more support.
And there, Dara Torres may be paving the way.
In 1992, she learned that she had asthma. She takes medicine that allows her to breathe normally, which allows her to train hard and compete. And with her head coach, sprint coach, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny, she spent at least $100,000 a year preparing for the Olympics.
But, of course, the results are clear. Age, it turns out, may not be the obstacle it was thought to be.
Karen Crouse contributed reporting.