COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The youthful swimmers who keep waiting for Dara Torres to retire -- again -- can breathe easy: the five-time Olympian says she definitely won't compete in the 2016 Games at age 49.
As for the 2012 London Olympics, Torres took her first step back on Saturday from a 16-month layoff for major knee surgery, qualifying for next year's U.S. Olympic Trials at the Missouri Grand Prix.
"I really just wanted to come here and make my trial cut, and I did," Torres said after earning a time of 25.9 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle preliminaries. She finished sixth with a slower time in the Saturday night finals, nearly one full second behind winner Jessica Hardy.
Torres, 43, has not raced competitively since the 2009 world championships and only recently resumed water training following a reconstructive procedure that involved transplanting cartilage to her left kneecap.
The lengthy recovery period proved as challenging as the physical hurdles that left her unable to climb stairs or freely play with her 4-year-old daughter Tessa.
"It definitely tested my patience," she said. "This was the first surgery where I actually had to listen to the doctor. ... You always kind of push the limits a little bit, and this one I couldn't."
Her comeback has been complicated by her 60-year-old coach Michael Lohberg's battle with a rare, life-threatening blood disorder. He remains hospitalized in Florida after a recent heart attack and is listed in intensive care.
"It's been such an emotional roller coaster ride," Torres said. "You don't realize how much emotions can drain you physically until you go through something like that."
Torres owns four Olympic gold medals, earning her first in the 1984 Games -- well before most of her current teammates and competitors were born. She earned three silver medals at the Beijing Games in 2008 after twice retiring from competitive swimming.
The 2012 Games, should she qualify, will truly be her last hurrah, Torres said.
"I don't want to be that athlete who's at the top of their game and goes down real quick," she said.
When it was pointed out that Torres had previously called the 2008 Olympics her last, she quickly dispelled any doubts that 2012 will be her last Games.
"You can quote me. There is no more [after 2012]. I'm done," she said. "If you ever see me in a pool again, it will be hanging out with my daughter, or maybe swimming a little master's [division] here and there."
Torres, affectionatey called "Grandma" by her teammates and rivals, said she draws inspiration from the working mothers and weekend warriors who cite her as a role model.
"I have so many people who tell me I'm motivating them, this motivates me to keep going," she said.
Hardy, a full two decades younger, called Torres' staying power "mind-boggling."
"At 23, I'm still considered young, when 10 years ago I would have been one of the oldest in the sport," she said. "It's exciting. Maybe I'll be 43 and still racing."