Steffen snatches gold in 50m free, Torres takes silver

BEIJING -- Minutes from the race that decides swimming's fastest woman, Dara Torres was in mother mode. She regaled her Australian and German rivals with tales of giving birth to her daughter two years ago.

Then the 41-year-old swimmer nearly went out and beat them all.

Torres capped her comeback for the middle-aged with two more silver medals Sunday, missing gold by one-hundredth of a second in the 50-meter freestyle.

Her time of 24.07 seconds was a personal best, just behind German Britta Steffen's winning effort of 24.06.

"I go home extremely thrilled," Torres said.

She earned silver in all three of her races in Beijing, earning her 12 medals in a career that began as a 17-year-old at the 1984 Olympics in her hometown of Los Angeles. Torres is tied with swimmer Jenny Thompson for most medals ever won by an American woman.

"Dara Torres never ceases to amaze me," said Mark Schubert, head coach and general manager of the U.S. team. "The only reason she could do this is she's never been out of shape a day in her life. She loves to train and be fit."

About 10 minutes after collecting her 50 free medal, Torres rushed back on deck to anchor the U.S. women to a runner-up finish in the 400 medley relay.

"I did this in Sydney, but I was 33 then," she said, noting the quick turnaround.

Torres bumped into Michael Phelps in the warmdown area between her races.

"Hey, I feel like you today," she told the eight-time gold medalist.

"You have it easy. You only swim two times," Phelps teased the woman he calls "Mom."

Torres dove in for the anchor leg trailing and couldn't catch Aussie Libby Trickett in a frantic sprint to the wall. But the Americans' time was the second-fastest in history and Torres' split set a U.S. record.

"She's a model for me. I must learn from her," said Pang Jiaying, who swam against Torres as China earned a relay bronze.

Plenty of weekend warriors found Torres inspiring, flooding her inbox with e-mails marveling at her fitness level. In turn, she fed off the public's good wishes.

"If it helps anyone else out there who is in their middle aged years, and they put off something they thought they couldn't do because they were too old or maybe thought that because they have children they can't balance what they want to do and be a parent, then I'm absolutely thrilled," she said.

Torres had retired a second time after the 2000 Olympics, then got the urge to compete again after daughter Tessa arrived. Not content swimming in masters meets, she set out to prove that age is only a number.

"She's really taken the age factor out of the sport," said Christine Magnuson, her 22-year-old relay teammate.

Torres got off to a good start in the 50 and appeared to be leading midway through the race.

As they came to the wall, Torres and Steffen were stroke for stroke. The German reached out with her left hand and Torres stretched with her right. Steffen's fingertip got there first.

"I realized I shouldn't have filed my nails last night," Torres said.

The night before her only individual race in Beijing, she spoke to her coach half a world away. Michael Lohberg is battling a rare, potentially fatal blood disease that was diagnosed after last month's U.S. trials.

"I wouldn't be here without Michael," Torres said. "He and I wrote the story together and unfortunately he couldn't be here to finish it with me."

During their chat, a nervous Lohberg offered so many tips on how to swim the 50 that Torres got confused. She woke up Sunday morning and found an e-mail from him.

"Forget everything I said. Just go do your thing," he wrote.

Torres did, and came within a gold by the smallest margin in swimming. In Sydney, she earned a bronze in the 50 and now has a silver.

"Why wouldn't I try for a gold?" she mused, then added that she has no plans to continue competing.

"Please," Schubert begged.

For now, Torres heads home Tuesday for a Florida reunion with her daughter after they were separated for more than a month leading up to the games.

"I'm taking my daughter to school," she said, "and I have a list of school supplies I have to get her."

And three more shiny medals to show young Tessa.