Better with age

WASHINGTON – The opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing are less than a week to away. That means for one more week we will read the standard patter of the potential of doping scandals as well as the political situation and pollution in China, and, of course, the crackdown on foreign journalists’ usage of the Internet.

But once the torch is lit and athletes (at least those that actually choose to go to China for the ceremonies) stroll into the stadium for the parade of nations, the focus will shift from the realities of modern-day China and its problems to the feel-good athlete profiles that have defined NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

In the years since Jim McKay and ABC’s stately and iconic presiding over the games, NBC, with Bob Costas at the helm, has turned fierce athletic competition into a Hallmark card come to life. Sometimes they will even show a sporting event in real time without interruption, but only in the wee hours when the viewing audience is its smallest or when they can squeeze it in between that day’s saccharine sweet profile in which a pampered jock overcomes something to champion the human spirit.

Or something like that

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how NBC piles on to the Dara Torres story, which has already been told deftly by the national writing press, especially The New York Times. In fact, Torres was clearly the media darling during last month’s swimming Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, where she set an American record and qualified for two different U.S. teams in Beijing.

The finer points of Torres’ story have already been told, such as the 41-year-old swimmer first competed in the Olympics at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. She won nine medals in the ’84, 1988, 1992 and 2000 Olympics before deciding to retire after a haul of five medals in Sydney.

But at an age well advanced in comparison to her teammates and competitors, Torres heads into next week’s Olympics in the best shape of her career. Yes, her elaborate and detailed training regimen was documented in The Times story as was her outspokenness and innovative stance against performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the fact that Torres was one of the first athletes to volunteer (yes volunteer!) for the toughest urine and blood doping tests, it didn’t stop skepticism from the idiot fringe of the mainstream sporting press.

“I went to USADA and talked to the CEO there and said, ‘Hey, people are talking about me. They can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m an open book. DNA test me, blood test me, urine test me, do whatever you want. I want to show people I’m clean,'” Torres said on a recent episode of the “Today” show.

Yes, what sportswriters actually know about training, doping and athletics could fill a thimble…

“I just take it as a compliment,” Torres said of the baseless and reckless doping charges.

So with her life already an open book, Torres and fellow swimmer Michael Phelps could be the Wheaties box jocks of 2008 – that is if the Wheaties box still meant something. Bruce Jenner is long gone, folks.

Phelps, of course, could eclipse the Olympic greatness of Mark Spitz during the Beijing games. At 23, the Baltimore native won eight medals in Athens at the 2004 Olympics and will go for nine in China. But Phelps’ talent and achievement is so far out there that it might be impossible for him to capture the imagination of typical American sports’ fans addicted to the mundane routines of stick and ball games.

Torres, on the other hand, is interesting because of her age. Better yet she is a relic from the good-old days of the Olympics back when the U.S.A. was fighting to fight the Cold War in sports with the aim to beat the medal totals of the U.S.S.R. At the same time, Torres has been the catalyst behind a battery of tests, research and analysis regarding age and elite-level athletics.

Based on the returns noted in The Times (amongst others), age really is not a factor in determining ability in sports. Torres, of course, is a prime example. At just a smidge under six-feet tall, Torres competed in the Sydney Olympics at 160 pounds. But at 41 she’s headed for Beijing at a lean and mean 149 pounds of chiseled muscle thanks to workouts that stress flexibility, strength and recovery.

A high level of fitness and an insatiable competitiveness appears to be the key to athletic longevity.

“In some ways, I’m like all the other swimmers (going to the Olympics) because I still feel the passion for what I do,” Torres said. “In some ways I’m like none of them, because I’ve lived their lives twice.”

Torres is just one example. In Beijing French cyclist Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli will compete in her seventh straight Olympics – just two months shy of her 50th birthday.  Kenyan distance runner Paul Tergat recently turned 39 and has a resume that rivals the greatest runners of all time. In 2003 he set the world record in the marathon when he was 35 and ran his fastest 10k on the roads when he was 37.

Hockey player Chris Chelios, at 46, has shown no signs of slowing down (or retiring) after 25 years and three Stanley Cups in the NHL to go with four appearances in the Olympics for the U.S.

Chelios’ secret? He’s part of Don Wildman’s “Malibu Mob,” a consortium of athletes and celebrities/fitness freaks who workout together with the aim of pushing each other well beyond their limits.

Closer to home there is Jamie Moyer, the 45-year-old lefty starting pitcher for the Phillies who won his 10th game of the season last Wednesday night in Washington. In doing so, Moyer joined Phil Niekro, Jack Quinn and the immortal Satchel Paige as the only pitchers in baseball history to win at least 10 games at the age of 45.

“I didn’t play against any of them,” Moyer deadpanned after the game before changing the subject and explaining that he is just “here to do my job.”

“You start getting caught up in things like that and you might start losing some focus on things you need to do,” Moyer said about contemplating his place in baseball history. “I think there’s plenty of time for me to look back at the end of the season or at the end of my career and say, ‘You know what? That was cool,’ or ‘I remember that,’ or ‘I remember that game.’ But for me, having the opportunity to have the longevity that I have is the most special thing for me. To continue my career and to play and to contribute with a team, I think that is first and foremost. If you are around long enough, those things are going to start to happen.”

Better yet, Moyer leads the Phillies’ pitchers with his 10 wins and heads into another free-agent winter with the desire to keep playing. Generally, Moyer gives the pat, “as long as I’m still having fun and I’m contributing, I’ll keep playing,” when asked about his retirement plans, but based on a conversation last Tuesday regarding Torres, age and competitiveness, the fire still burns hot for the Phillies’ lefty.

“Look, I feel great and I’m pitching well and I love playing so I have no plans to stop,” he said. “But I could come in here tomorrow and the desire could be completely gone.”

Clearly that’s not the case. Moyer prepares and competes at 45 no differently than he did when he was a green rookie coming up with the Cubs in 1986. However, if there is something behind Moyer’s motivation to continue to pitch (and to pitch well) it seems to be the slights he took from baseball people back when he was struggling in the early 1990s. No, Moyer didn’t cite it as a motivating cause, but then again he didn’t have to.

“Fourteen years ago I was told to retire,” Moyer said with a smirk.

Moyer was unfamiliar with Torres’s story when asked, but quickly became interested in the finer details. Particularly, Moyer agreed with Torres’ idea that consistent workouts, a solid fitness foundation and smart recovery were the key to athletic longevity. Then he pondered the reasons why some players give up the game long before they could.

“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire,” he said. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”

Moyer, to paraphrase a famous quote, asks “why not?” He expects to turn in his customary 200-innings and double-digits win total somewhere during the 2009 season. Certainly his age will play a factor in whether the Phillies move to re-sign him this winter, but equally important – if not more important – is the fact that Moyer has not missed a start for injury since 2000, has been on the disabled list just once dating back to 1997 and just three times during his professional career, which began in 1984.

Better yet, young pitchers Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick go to Moyer as a Jedi would seek out Yoda.

Besides, Yoda had a pretty good record, too.