A five-time Olympian, American swimmer Dara Torres won 12 medals in a glittering Games career which spanned 24 years. Here, she discusses how she balanced becoming a mother in 2006 and successfully competing at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 two years later.

No female athlete has won more Olympic medals in the pool than Dara Torres. Compatriots Natalie Coughlin and Jenny Thompson have equalled her remarkable tally of 12, but no one has yet surpassed her record-breaking haul.

Torres’ Olympic love affair began in Los Angeles in 1984 with gold in the 4x100m freestyle. Further medals followed in Seoul four years later and in Barcelona in 1992, but having claimed two gold, a silver and bronze medals, she decided to call time on her international career.

Entering the world of work
“I was 25 at the time of the 1992 Games,” she reflects. “That was considered old for a swimmer, and I bowed to the societal pressure and retired. I thought it was probably time to step into the real world and look for a job.

“I started as an intern at the NBC Sports channel and eventually became a production assistant. I also became a sports model, and in 1994 I was the first swimmer to feature in Sports Illustrated magazine.”

Food for thought
Torres spent seven years away from the sport but was lured back to the pool after a dinner with friends in the summer of 1999.

“My friends asked whether I’d ever considered making a comeback,” she says. “I thought they were joking, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. I thrive on challenges, and I knew no one had ever successfully returned after such a long break.”

It was as if she had never been away, and at the age of 33 she was selected for Team USA for the Olympic Games Sydney 2000. Torres excelled in Australia and returned home with two more gold and three bronze medals.

“I loved the Sydney experience because of the length of time I’d been away from the sport,” she said. “My body felt strong, and it was exhilarating to be in a competitive environment again. The problem came after the Games, when I realised I would have to go back to the real world again and look for work.”

Gainful employment came presenting golf show The Clubhouse on the Resort Sports Network and making personal appearances. Her time as an elite athlete seemed to be over, and when Torres’ daughter Tessa was born in 2006, few would have believed the new mother would swim at another edition of the Games.

New inspiration
“In many ways, it was the arrival of Tessa that inspired me to start all over again,” she said. “I was still swimming to keep fit, and after Tessa was born, a light bulb just went off in my head. I thought it would be cool to compete at the Olympic Games as a mother and I hoped, when she got older, it would be something she could be proud of.

“Her father was very supportive and, three weeks after the birth, after taking doctor’s advice, I was swimming at a meet. Two months later I competed at the Masters World Championships and qualified for the Olympic trials.”

At the age of 41, Torres made history when she became the oldest-ever swimmer to earn Olympic selection for Team USA. She won silver in the 50m freestyle, 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley in her fifth Games, and although Tessa was not in China to see her mother on the podium, Torres does not regret her unlikely but successful comeback.

“It was tough being away from her for an extended period, but she was only two-and-a-half and too young to make such a long trip,” she said. “It was painful to leave her behind, but there wasn’t any other option.”

Guilt trip
By her own admission, balancing motherhood while preparing for the Games was not easy; but Torres hopes she has shown other female athletes they can have children and still compete at elite level.

“The biggest challenge was dealing with the guilt,” she said. “I think most parents experience that if work takes them away from their kids, and I think you’ve got to embrace and accept your guilt before you can move forward.

“I was lucky in the build-up to Beijing because I had a sponsor and could afford to employ a nanny. That made the practical, day-to-day side of things more manageable, but it took longer to come to terms with the fact I wasn’t with Tessa 24/7.”

Parental vision
Torres continued to balance bringing up Tessa and her hectic training regime as she narrowly missed out on selection for London 2012, and she has this advice for any parents in similar situations.

“I found it very helpful to take Tessa to training occasionally so that she could see what I was doing for herself,” she said. “It helped her visualise where I was when I wasn’t home. There’s no point trying to explain to such a young child; it’s easier if they can see it for themselves.

“I think it’s also really important to remember that you are trying to be a positive role model for your child. There are sacrifices but don’t forget you’re trying to teach them about discipline, hard work and commitment. I think that, as she has got older, Tessa has begun to understand that.”