Body and Mind

The Meaning of Dara


The following is a guest post from former competitive swimmer Michelle Brafman, who teaches and writes fiction in Washington:

Dara Torres. Dara Torres. God, it would be so easy to hate her. Let’s start with the abs that defy nature, maddening proof that a 41-year-old mother can successfully model a bikini. There are the masseuses and trainers who knead her muscles and stretch her limbs myriad times a day to flush out lactic acid built up from swimming laps and pumping iron while a nanny cares for her toddler. I’m guessing she’s not folding much of her own laundry, but I could be wrong.

I’m not bitter. Really, I’m not. If I sound a little obsessed though, it’s for good reason. If I had a quarter for every time someone asked me "So what do you think of that Dara Torres?" I could fill every parking meter in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.  Why do people associate me with Dara? Believe me, it’s not the abs. Dara and I are of the same vintage; I swam competitively for almost 20 years, and like Dara, I was a drop-dead sprinter, not an Olympian but an NCAA All-American.

My daughter’s recent foray into competitive swimming has catapulted me back to this chapter of my life, particularly the swim meets: the thick summer air scented with chlorine and mildewed towels, the national anthem performed slightly off-key, and the munchkin swimmers hooting and hollering for each other. By the last event, I’m fighting the urge to pull on my Land’s End tankini and recruit one of the timers to run a clock on my own 25-meter freestyle.

Last week, I traveled back to Milwaukee, my hometown, to visit a high-school friend and former swimming buddy; within hours of my arrival, we found ourselves in front of the Whitefish Bay high-school pool, sheets of rain pounding the roof of her minivan and drenching our clothes during our short sprint to the field house. We made our way past the faded canary-yellow lockers, up to the pool, to the record board that hung in the diving well. Phew. My 100-yard freestyle record, now more than two decades  old, still stands. We giggled at the absurdity of my pilgrimage—not my first, I confess—as we fanned our T-shirts and shorts under the warm air blasting out of the hair dryers. 

Unlike Dara, I have no aspiration to break my record. I just like to know that it’s there. I have new dreams, my strongest my humbling desire for my children to grow into happy, healthy, and compassionate beings. From watching footage of Dara and her daughter frolicking in the pool, I suspect that she shares my hopes. Dara and I have got dreams for ourselves, too. For the past eight years, I’ve spent the bulk of my free time writing fiction. I write after my children go to sleep, before they wake up, and during random cracks in the day. My house could be cleaner, our dinners more edible, and our cottons less wrinkled; my lower back is a mess, and I’ve written through elbow pain which has left me with a recurring case of tendonitis. I likely earn less per hour than we pay our teenage baby-sitters, and there are no guarantees that I will publish anything I write.

There are no guarantees that Dara’s enormous financial and emotional investment in her swimming will yield any hardware at Beijing. Athletes and artists gamble hours of sacrifice on a medal or a record, and the few who score big undoubtedly overcome hurdles along the way. Dara’s suffered a torn meniscus, a bone spur in her shoulder, and various personal and professional hiccups. Writers suffer plenty of setbacks. I’ve received rejection letters that have made me want to throw in the keyboard, letters that demand to be shaken off so that I can plot another comeback. I always come back.

In 10 years, I’m not going to remember the editors who have passed on my stories, and I probably won’t think much about the ones who haven’t. In the year 2018, will anyone recall if Dara broke the world record in the 50-meter freestyle or if she even medaled? Probably not. My hunch is that we will remember Dara Torres for redefining our notion of our collective potential, as a species. Body and mind. We will remember that three weeks after she gave birth, she broke an American record in the 50-freestyle, the most exacting physical and psychological race in competitive swimming. We will remember that she did it by training as smart as she did hard, and by plugging her ears and singing "la, la, la" when the skeptics got nasty.

I’m fairly certain that I won’t redefine any idea of a greater literary potential, but I’d be pretty happy if I realized my own. I’ll keep at it. When my demons taunt me and I need to find my way to the junction of talent, heart and promise, I’ll think: Dara Torres, Dara Torres.

For more on Dara Torres, Slate’s June Thomas and Josh Levin discuss her amazing form at

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