"They want to know about the abs and the arms," says 42-year-old swimmer Dara Torres, the five-time Olympian—most recently last summer in Beijing, where she won three silver medals. She's talking about being a role model for those who aspire to athletic success over the age of 35 (which counts as "older" in the world of elite sports); she took up that mantle during the run-up to the Olympics and still holds it a year later. As her profile rose, people clamored to know her secrets. They want to know about how she trains, what she eats, how she managed to compete in last week's world championships against people less than half her age—and, yes, how she has that body after giving birth to a child.
The answer to that last question: strength-training, mostly using her own body weight, and focusing particularly on her core stomach, back, and pelvic muscles. But she reminds people that it's her job to perform at a certain level, which means keeping her body in stellar condition. More important than inspiring people to get similarly ripped abs is motivating them to push beyond self-imposed limits based on a notion of what's age-appropriate, whether in the arena of exercise and sports or in life. "Don't put an age limit on your dreams," says Torres, who is working on a fitness book, which will be out next year, and is promoting BP's younger for longer campaign.
And if your dreams include participating in sports in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond? Here are some tips gleaned from Torres's experience.
* Breaks can be good. Torres took years at a time off from competition to do other things—travel, work in TV, model, have a child. She says her time away was rejuvenating both physically and mentally.
* Listen to your body. Often repeated advice, yet often ignored by Type A athletes who believe working through pain is heroic. Not so. If you feel something, pay attention to it, says Torres. That can help keep a small twinge from turning into a more serious injury.
* Do strength-training. It's often neglected by time-crunched athletes in favor of their primary activity, but it's essential—not only for performance but to build strong bones, says Torres. She's moved away from heavy weights to workouts that rely on her own body weight, but those can be just as tough. One of her favorite variations on a pushup is to do it with her hands on a bar at hip height and her legs on an inflatable Swiss ball. Yowza.
* Train smarter, not harder. "You may feel like you have to do what a 20-year-old is doing," says Torres. "But you can't." In her case, that means paring down her weekly swim workouts to five from nine, with two days a week completely off. Recovery time is the older athlete's best friend.
* Use your experience to your advantage. Torres says confidence and maturity go a long way at the Olympics or world championships. While young swimmers are unnerved by the crowds and, in many cases, haven't even been out of the country before, she's "more relaxed about it." And with perspective gained over the years and with the birth of her daughter, she realizes that while winning is great, it's not the most important thing in life.
What's next for Torres? First, surgery on an arthritic knee this autumn, then a return to the pool in the new year. After that, she'll see how she's feeling; she hasn't ruled out more competition. As for becoming a role model for over-35 athletes everywhere, she's happy to keep doing that in perpetuity. "I had no clue [before the Olympics] that it was going to happen, and it's turned out to be the most rewarding feeling ever—better than winning medals."