Tori Merlino, 9, swims competitively for a team called Phoenix in Sudbury, Mass., just west of Boston. Tori's specialties are freestyle and breaststroke, and she remembers — she thinks — when she first learned to swim.
“Well, I might not have gone to the pool,” Merlino recalled. “We always go to our grandparents' house, so I started swimming when I could walk. But not like the actual strokes. Just doggie paddle and things like that.”
On this particular recent weekday evening, Tori Merlino and teammates weren't doggie paddling. They were kicking hard through laps in an Olympic-sized pool, as Tori's mom, Chantel Merlino, who's also one of her coaches, encouraged them.
According to Tori, but for a knee injury, her mom would have made the U.S. Olympic team, which is what Tori wants to do. But one of her teammates shares that aspiration: Tessa Torres-Hoffman, the eight-year-old daughter of Dara Torres, who began winning Olympic medals in Los Angeles in 1984 and didn’t stop until she won three more in Beijing in 2008.
“I would like to be like my mom when I grow up, ‘cause my mom was an Olympic swimmer,” Torres-Hoffman said.
Now retired from competitive swimming, Dara Torres is promoting a program called SwimToday.
“Most parents enroll their kids in, like, soccer or baseball or lacrosse or stuff like that, so we're just trying to get the word out there about how much fun swimming can be,” Torres said. “And the other thing is you learn a lot from the sport.”
Dara Torres herself began swimming for a YMCA team when she was seven years old. As she remembers it, her mother was not the swimming equivalent of a little league dad.
“I don't think my mom ever knew my times when she went to swim meets,” Torres said. “She was just there, cheering me on, had the video camera, and that was it. And then we'd go back and watch the video, and I'd hear this loud screeching scream on the video, and like, ‘What is that?’ And it was my mother yelling. I didn't even think that – she's so petite – and where did that come from? And you can't help it. It's your child, and you want to cheer them on, but I would never do anything that would embarrass her.”
“Well, I've played soccer, basketball, volleyball, and I've never seen such camaraderie that I do on a pool deck,” she said. “Even at the Olympic level, I mean, you hear the whole U.S.A. team chanting and cheering you on when you're on the starting blocks, and it really is in that sense very much a team sport. I mean, I've never experienced that kind of encouragement from teammates in any sport but swimming.”
Ironically, the extraordinary longevity of Torres's Olympic career mitigated against the camaraderie she's promoting for others.
Given that Dara Torres was still competitive when the makeup of the U.S. team that would compete in London two summers ago was being determined, I couldn't resist asking her if she missed the sport, especially when she was watching Tessa compete.
“People tease that we're going to be on the starting blocks together, but, you know, I don't miss it,” she replied. “I think I finally got it out of my system because I think if I really missed it, I might just be creeping back in there toward Rio. But I think when I got out of the pool in the 2012 Trials, and I missed the team by .09 seconds, I was, like, OK, I'm done now — finally I can move on with my life.”
Besides promoting the SwimToday program, Dara Torres is still working with some of the companies that sponsored her when she was on the Olympic team, she travels widely to give motivational speeches and she says she's always running around "doing stuff" with her the 14-year-old twins who are her step-children.
And then there's the time she spends at the pool with Tessa, that eight-year-old butterfly champ, who just wants to be like her mom when she grows up.
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