Though undoubtedly poised for greatness, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swim Team will be without an illustrious member of the Jewish sporting firmament. Veteran Dara Torres, whose father was Jewish and who has undergone formal conversion, failed last Monday to secure a berth for the games in London, missing out by less than a tenth of a second in the final heat of the trials for the fifty meter freestyle.
That loss in no way diminishes the magnitude of her accomplishments, which have earned her a spot in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Her return to peak form in Beijing four years ago at the age of 41 was a sensation, doubly impressive for a mother, and was crowned with two silver medals. As storied as her career has been, though, making the London-bound squad at the (by Olympic standards) senescent age of 45 would have once again rewritten our understanding of the body’s capacity for transcending apparently insurmountable limits.
For the inveterate Jew-spotter, this is a comedown after 2008, a (forgive me) highwater mark for Jewish competitive swimming. That year’s U.S. Olympic roster featured the Hyphenated Jew Crew of Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Garrett Weber-Gale, along with Jason Lezak, whose epochal anchor leg in the 4 X 100 medley relay guaranteed Michael Phelps his eighth gold medal of the games, eclipsing Jewish swim god Mark Spitz’s old record of seven won in Munich. Lezak is now the only holdover of that trio, Weber-Gale having missed out on qualifying in his bid to go to London, and is hoping to reprise his success in the relay at the venerable age of thirty-six.
Just why Jews should excel in this particular sport, a seasonal pastime for most of us, is a bit of a mystery, our presumed ready access to swimming facilities a not altogether satisfying explanation. Perhaps it’s the long, inspirational shadow cast by Spitz himself, though one wonders whether this accounted for Backstroke King Lenny Krayzelburg’s early motivation, given his Odessan provenance. In any case, Spitz and Lezak et al. are sure to have their heirs among the various tadpoles and minnows being put through their paces at summer camp this July and August. Maybe it is the legacy of that great drive to re-acclimate Jews to wholesome, pastoral environments after our long immurement in the ghetto, a sentiment that found expression in Zionism as well as the blossoming of Yiddish-tinged vacation resorts in the Catskills. Nobody puts Baby in the Kiddie Pool.
Yet Torres carried a greater burden on her ample shoulders than personal ambition. For those in that borderland of early middle age—it’s not precisely demarcated—with emerging paunch and more good intentions than energy, she represented the possibility of recapturing youthful vigor in later life. Torres’ example is a stern rebuke to the lassitude of the middle years.
Admittedly, her Olympic dreams were kept alive by a team of trainers, physical therapists, coaches, nutritionists, and physicians working at full bore like an ICU staff. Nonetheless, it is her self-discipline that resonates for legions of weary and inert forty- and fifty-somethings: that allowing for time, we can redefine what our age entails; that given a rigorous schedule of physical activity and sufficient commitment, even a married, 43-year-old, chronically fatigued father of three—and I’ll start right after Labor Day, I swear—could become, well, a slightly tauter, married, 43-year-old, chronically fatigued father of three.
Roy Abrams is a science writer in New York City.