Dara Torres picks greatest female swimmer(s) of all time, recalls teenage Michael Phelps, more in Q&A

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Dara Torres won’t be swimming at the 2016 Olympics, but her name will certainly arise on the road to Rio de Janeiro.

Torres holds the record for most U.S. Olympic swimming berths — five — which Michael Phelps can match next year. In 2000, Phelps and Torres were the youngest and oldest members of the U.S. Olympic swim team. The 15-year-old Phelps memorably called the 33-year-old Torres “mom” at those Sydney Games.

Torres shares the record for most Olympic medals earned by a U.S. woman in any sport — 12 — with swimmers Jenny Thompson and Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin, 32, is still active and could surpass Torres if she makes her fourth Olympic team next year.

Many may remember Torres from the Beijing 2008 Games, when she took silver in the 50m freestyle, missing her first individual Olympic gold medal by .01 of a second. Still, Torres broke her American record by .18. No American has since bettered it, and it’s the second-longest-standing women’s American record in an Olympic event.

Some may remember Torres for her role in the Tae-Bo infomercials of the 1990s. One person who apparently has little to no knowledge of that slice of her career is Torres’ daughter, Tessa, who was 2 years old during the Beijing Olympics and is now a 9-year-old swimmer.

Torres still swims regularly and gives back to the sport through efforts such as SwimToday, which she promoted on a visit to New York on Wednesday. There, she shared some of her time with OlympicTalk.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

OlympicTalk: Who is your daughter’s favorite swimmer?

Torres: She loves Missy Franklin. How can you not? She’s the perfect role model — nice, outgoing, smart. She also likes Phelps and Lochte, adores them, and has posters of them on her wall in her room.

OlympicTalk: When was the last time you saw the current crop of swimmers at a meet?

Torres: I was at Nationals last year. This was the first time I was at a meet, and I was OK not swimming it. I obviously am very competitive, and I miss competing, but there was nothing in me that was like, oh, I wish I was up there. I was OK with it. I was able to take it in and enjoy it.

OlympicTalk: If you could be FINA president, what would you change?

Torres: I would give back more money to the sports and the NGBs [national governing bodies]. It’s such a fine line because the Olympics are supposed to be amateur sport, yet when you’re done with college, you can get paid. I see a lot of the NGBs doing fundraisers so the kids can go to the different competitions. It should be where there should be enough money for the athletes. They should have the best of the hotels. It seems like a lot of times sports don’t have the money to supply for their athletes.

OlympicTalk: What do you think of mixed-gender relays being added for the World Championships this summer?

Torres: I would love to see first and foremost the shorter events in the Olympics [50m backstroke, 50m breaststroke, 50m butterfly]. My best event growing up was the 50m freestyle, and my first Olympics, they didn’t have that event [at Los Angeles 1984]. The shortest event was the 100. Maybe I’m just biased because I’m a sprinter. They have them at the World Championships, but they don’t have them at the Olympics. I would like to see that first [at the Olympics], before seeing mixed relays.

OlympicTalk: Do you still swim competitively at the masters level?

Torres: I swim on Cambridge Masters [Swim Club] at Harvard, but I don’t swim meets. Since I’ve retired I’ve had two knee surgeries and now this [a wrist injury]. I haven’t really had a chance to be healthy and compete, but I told Cambridge Masters that if it got to a point where they needed me on a relay, I’d be happy to help out.

OlympicTalk: Who do you consider the greatest female swimmer of all time?

Torres: From when I grew up, probably Tracy Caulkins. Now, we’ll see what happens, but probably Missy Franklin. It doesn’t diminish what anyone else does, because you look at Katie Ledecky, and the times she’s going are just incredible. For me, being able to do all the different strokes is amazing. I can see a swimmer walking on the deck, and I can tell by looking at them what they swim. Freestyle and butterfly were my best strokes. I couldn’t swim breaststroke if they paid me. But you see the athletes who can do all the different strokes, that’s incredible.

OlympicTalk: Does Tessa ever watch your races on tape or YouTube?

Torres: She goes to YouTube all the time. She doesn’t watch them on tape, because I don’t think she knows what tape is, unfortunately. She knows what DVR is, but back when I swam they didn’t have DVR. Her and her friends watch my races. I think she also likes to see because leading up to and after 2008, I had a lot of shoots where she was in the shoots. So I think she likes to show her friends that she was on TV, too. I didn’t know that she does it, and then I go to the history of her phone and see it on there. Oh, that little devil.

OlympicTalk: Has Tessa seen any of your Tae-Bo videos?

Torres: No, and until the ’08 Olympics I was known as the Tae-Bo girl. Then I was back being a swimmer again. I had been to four Olympics, and people still didn’t know who I was. I don’t think she [Tessa] knows about Tae-Bo, since it’s tape, not digital.

OlympicTalk: Do you have any interesting stories from 15-year-old Michael Phelps at the Sydney 2000 Olympics?

Torres: I don’t even think he had hair on his body yet. He was so young. I’ll never forget, I still had the 50m freestyle left, and he swam his race [placing fifth in the 200m butterfly]. He was there the next day training. I was kidding around, and I went up to his coach, and I didn’t know Bob Bowman that well at all, but I said, “Doesn’t this kid ever get a break?” He was like, “No, he’s training for 2004 now.” I was like, oh my gosh. He was so serious, Bob was. I couldn’t believe it, but as the years went on and the accomplishments he made, you understand the psyche and why he was doing that.

Flashback: Michael Phelps at Sydney 2000

OlympicTalk: You’ve been involved in swimming for so long and have so many opportunities and pitches, so what about SwimToday is so special?

Torres: The fact that parents aren’t educated enough to know how wonderful the sport is really caught my eye. Eighty percent of parents who have their children in swim lessons growing up don’t think of swimming as a youth sport [to continue in after learning how to swim]. I couldn’t believe it. I was dumbfounded at those stats. I really want to educate parents how wonderful the sport of swimming is.

Dara Torres reflects on her favorite swimming rival, Olympic race