NEWS

41-year-old Olympian Dara Torres inspires middle-aged athletes

Peter Reuell

Who says life ends at 40?

One thing is for sure: It ain't Dara Torres. The 41-year-old last week qualified for her fifth Olympics by beating swimmers barely half her age in the 100-meter freestyle, and two days later set an American record in the 50-meter race.

As armchair athletes marvel at Torres' performance, others Tuesday offered a different response: Get in the pool.

"I think it's an inspiration,'' said Jen Scalise-Marinofsky. "It doesn't put a limit on age. It's great.''

A tri-athlete, personal trainer and coach to a "Masters'' level swim club at the Longfellow Sports Club in Natick, Scalise-Marinofsky said she believes athletes of all ages could learn a lesson from Torres.

"I try to say to everybody, there should be no limit on your age,'' she said. "There's no excuse. Age is not an excuse to do nothing.''

Just ask Nancy DeRoma.

She completed her first Ironman triathlon - a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and full-length marathon - all in Hawaii - in her 30s, and still competes in triathlons on a regular basis.

"My motto is just keep moving,'' she said, minutes before jumping on her bike yesterday for a (she said) easy 50-mile ride. "It's the fountain of youth.

"I hope (Dara Torres) does awaken a lot of people who are older who think they can't do it.''

"I think it's amazing, it's great,'' said Natick resident Andrew Rogers, who at 30, was one of the younger swimmers in the Longfellow pool Tuesday morning. "But I also think it's more doable than people think. I coach the little guys and they all stopped talking about (Michael) Phelps. They talk about her.''

Torres' story becomes more incredible when you look at her competition.

Most of the other swimmers on the U.S. women's team were born after Torres first competed in the Olympics, at the Los Angeles Games of 1984. The youngest, Elizabeth Beisel, was born shortly after the Barcelona Games of 1992, Torres' third Olympics.

Even more amazing: Torres' record-setting performance came just months after undergoing two surgeries, and after taking several years off to start a family.

Though impressive at any age, Torres seems particularly age-defying.

Even with continuous training, athletes at all levels experience a gradual decline in endurance and speed, roughly half a percent a year, through their 30s and 40s, experts say.

While it would be virtually impossible for novice athletes to start rigorous training in their 30s and expect to reach Olympic level by their 40s, healthy people can significantly improve their athletic performance with the kinds of exercises Torres does, doctors say.

"It's inspiring, totally inspiring,'' said Grace Paltrineri, 43, of Natick. "You're seeing more and more women at older ages doing things like that.

"It motivates you to train, to race. It makes you realize you can do it even if you're in your 40s.''

Paltrineri is a prime example.

After swimming competitively in high school, she took a 12-year break from the sport, during which she had two children. She recently came back to swimming and said she's in the best shape she's ever been.

The same is true for Elaine Metcalf.

The closest the 44-year-old Wellesley resident got to competitive swimming was a few summers spent as a lifeguard in her teens.

But after having three children, Metcalf last summer began competing in triathlons, and found herself hooked.

She hopes to complete a half-Ironman event by the end of the summer, and said Torres' success will help drive her to the finish line.

"It should be inspiring,'' she said. "It goes to show you, the myth that you peak in your teens and 20s is not true for all sports.

"I think I'm fitter now than I was in my 20s,'' she added. "It's never too late to start. You can start even if you haven't done (anything) in 20 years.''

Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at preuell@cnc.com

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