When 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres makes her much-anticipated splash in Beijing, an old friend and former Olympic teammate will be watching on TV and cheering like it was 1992.
That was the year a national swimming sensation from Lakewood High and the University of Florida — 19-year-old Nicole Haislett — won three gold medals at the Barcelona Games. One of those medals came in the 4x100-meter relay, a team that included fellow Gator star Torres.
Sixteen years later, Nicole Haislett Bacher sits back in her cozy Florida room on a recent morning. As 21-month-old daughter Blake plays by her side, Bacher reflects on the woman who stole the show this month at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., by defying age and the odds.
Torres has no bigger backer than Bacher and no stauncher defender against speculation that she heads to her record fifth Olympics next month with the help of steroids.
On a wall behind Bacher, a large frame holds two color photos of her with Torres and other teammates exulting in '92 Olympic glory, an experience that cemented a lifelong bond between the onetime rivals.
They took far different paths in life.
Bacher, 35, retired from the sport in 1995 after the demands of training for the 1996 Games in Atlanta began to take a toll. She helped coach the UF women's swim team, then trained for a culinary career, fell in love with a fellow chef, Ricky Bacher, in 2001 and married him two years later. They worked together for two years at the Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, a continuous care facility in South Pasadena, she as activities director and he as executive chef.
In late 2006, Blake was born, and Bacher has stayed home raising her — passing on a passion for swimming with lessons part of the weekly routine.
In contrast, Torres has kept the Olympic flame burning in a sport where she's old enough to be a mom to many of her competitors. She has done it by keeping herself in peak condition — aided by a well-publicized muscle stretching regimen — and despite her second eight-year Olympic layoff and becoming a mother in 2005.
Aside from the 1992 Games, Torres has competed in 1984 in Los Angeles, 1988 in Seoul and 2000 in Sydney, winning nine medals, four of them gold. She qualified for Beijing in two events, winning the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races. To save wear and tear on her body and increase her chance of winning a medal, she will compete in only the 50, her favorite event. By virtue of her trials finishes, she most likely will be a member of the 4x100 relay team.
Bacher, who keeps in regular contact with Torres, spoke at length with the Times about the veteran swimmer who is still making waves.
What are your early memories of Dara?
She was really before my time in her main portion of swimming. She finished at Florida before my freshman year and basically retired before I made my first national team. I grew up watching her and was up in Gainesville for meets all the time. She was my idol.
What was it like when you finally trained with her?
I was a freshman at Florida when she decided to make a comeback for '92 and returned to Gainesville to train with the team. … At first, it was, "Oh, my gosh, another competitor, someone I have to watch out for." I was intimidated, but then I felt I was on equal footing with her because I'd come into my own. Then we had a pretty big rivalry going. We weren't very friendly during the training leading up to the Olympics. … What happened was, we went to the trials and both made the team. … After all the tension had settled, we just kind of became good friends. And we've always kept in touch.
Could you ever have imagined this kind of comeback?
When I heard she was making the comeback for 2000, I thought she was out of her mind. Technically, she'd been out of the water for eight years. I thought, "Gosh, why do you feel like you need to do this?" But Dara is the most competitive person I've ever known. I'm competitive, too. But she takes it to a whole new level. I think somebody just put the bug in her ear (in 1999), and she wound up swimming faster than she'd ever swum and looking better than she'd ever looked. With all her prior Olympic experience and training, she started to realize what she needed to do to be the best swimmer she could be.
In my opinion, up through '92, she was a bit weak mentally. She'd swim fast in practice and in meets leading up to the big meet, but at the big meet she didn't fulfill her potential. By 2000, she was older, wiser and loving it.
What about this comeback?
When I heard about it, my jaw hit the floor. My first reaction was "Why?" She's got a daughter now. That's all I could think of because Blake takes up all my time. I was sort of quick to pass judgment. But when I talked to her, she gave me her spiel, and I was like, "Good for you. Go for it."
What was the spiel?
Her partner (David Hoffman, the father of her daughter) used to swim in college, and he wanted to compete at the masters world championships and didn't want to train by himself. So he asked her if she'd train with him and go to events. She had been swimming when she was pregnant for exercise, so she started training with him and felt really good. At the masters world event, she swam very fast on little training. And everyone was coming up to her saying, "You should make another comeback. It would be so great. Show them that us old people can do it." As soon as she gets that little bug, that's it. She found a coach, called up her old stretchers to work with her again, and here she is.
She's the big story now.
Dara is one in a zillion. And I'll tell you, I'm so aggravated by the whole steroids topic. It bugs me because I know she would never do that. She's been tested over a dozen times between the beginning of the year and trials and I'm sure several times since. She invites the testing, any place, any time. And she's doing the blood testing as well as the urine testing, which I think is very hard to beat, if it can be beat at all.
It drives me crazy because it's one of the greatest stories in sports, but nobody can bring it up without mentioning steroids. She said in an interview that now you're guilty until proven innocent. I've known her about 17 years, and I wouldn't be friends with her if I had any doubt in my mind that she might be doing something. I just know her.
What do you think about what she has done?
I'm so proud of her and so amazed. Not only am I happy for Dara, I just think it's so incredible how she's kind of breaking all the old stereotypes — "Oh, you can't swim after you're 30" and "God forbid you get better as you get older" and "Your body can't look better, especially after having a child." She's showing everyone, "Yes, you can."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8541.