Olympic Mom: Hero or Cheater?

I’m feeling inadequate. Dara Torres is my age, 41, the mother of a two-year old, and just qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim team with a win in the 100-meter freestyle and a U.S.-record time in the 50-meter freestyle. This will be her fifth Olympics. In 2007, she won the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals with another American record, only 15 months after having her daughter.

Some are questioning whether her accomplishments are possible without chemical assistance. Others note that she voluntarily enrolled in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency pilot program and has had both her urine and blood tested 12 to 15 times since March. (Most Olympic athletes only undergo urinalysis.) She was clean each time.

I’m inclined to believe Torres has that lucky combination of genetics and drive that enable her to perform such feats. Martina Navratilova won her ninth Wimbledon title at age 38, not so far behind Torres, and was 47 when she competed as a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team in women’s doubles. (She also won the U.S. Open mixed doubles finals in 2006; do the math.)

As for the effect of motherhood, NBC noted on its Olympic site that “Nineteen so-called “working moms” have made or are strong contenders to make the 2008 U.S. team.” Ones that have made it include soccer players Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone, as well as softball players Stacey Nuveman (in her third Olympics) and pitcher Jennie Finch (a gold medalist in 2004). Lisa Fernandez, a three-time gold medalist, was named an alternate.

Also notable, though not on this year’s team, is three-time Olympian Leah O’Brien Amico, who gave birth to a son between her second gold medal (in Sydney) and her third (in Athens). Motherhood, along with a desire to continue her professional career, led her and others to develop the idea for the USA Softball Child Care Fund. Amico says the fund made it possible for her to be on the 2004 team; Nuveman and Finch say it “has made all the difference” to them, too. (NBC also reports “it’s available to top-tier male players as well, though no men have tapped it.” Funny that.)

As training, equipment, and (legal) sports medicine improve, athletes will continue to play at top levels longer than ever. If other sports follow the lead of Amico and USA Softball to support their mother-athletes, motherhood and professional sports will no longer seem like such an odd mix, either. I could be wrong about Torres, of course. As methods for detecting drugs improve, so will methods for concealing them. This would be a misjudgment of Torres’ character on my part, however, not a statement about what is necessary for older athletes or mothers to compete.

(Crossposted at Mombian.)