09/18/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
The meal that changed everything began innocently enough. Two-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Dara Torres–who hadn't swum a single lap in seven happy years of retirement–had tickets to a Meat Loaf concert and was grabbing a quick bite with her boyfriend one night in March 1999. When the talk turned to her former sport, Torres perked right up. "My boyfriend said, 'Every time you talk about swimming you have this gleam in your eye,'" says Torres. "And he said, 'Have you ever thought of making a comeback?'" Torres brushed him off, but at the concert, she recalls, "I couldn't get the thought out of my head."
The boyfriend is gone now, but that gleam is still there. After a Rip Van Winkle-like layoff, Torres has indeed made a comeback at the very ripe old age (for a swimmer) of 33, mothballing her modeling career and taking a break from filming those Tae-Bo infomercials to compete in her fourth Olympics–something no American swimmer has done before. Incredibly, Torres swam some of her fastest times ever at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis last month and qualified to go to Sydney with a chance to add to her four medals from the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympics. The difference this time is that Torres–who battled bulimia during her first two Games and won all her medals in relay races, not the more glamorous individual events–is totally healthy and gunning for solo gold. "She's always been just a short distance from greatness," says NBC Olympic analyst and two-time swimming gold medalist Donna de Varona. "She never trained the right way or gave 100 percent. I think Dara returned to satisfy unfinished business."
That return has not been without controversy: USA Today columnist Christine Brennan speculated that Torres's torrid race times might be due to banned performance-enhancing drugs. The charges "blindsided me," says Torres, who strongly denies them and credits her improbable resurgence–she set a U.S. record in the 50-meter freestyle in June–to a state-of-the-art training routine, rigorous flexibility work and a powerful stroke that 20 lbs. of added muscle has given her. (A 160-lb. six-footer, she bench-presses an impressive 205 lbs.) "She's packed three years of training into one," says her swim coach, Richard Quick.
But then, Torres has "been an overachiever all her life," says her mother, Marylu Kauder, 63, a home-maker who taught Dara, her four older brothers and younger sister how to swim in the pool at their Beverly Hills home. (She is divorced from Dara's father, Edward, 82, a real estate broker.) Torres, a quick study, was only 17 when she won gold in the 400-meter relay at the '84 Olympics. Even then, though, she was struggling with bulimia, which she developed trying to keep her weight down for her University of Florida swim meets. "Those were the hardest years of my life," says Torres, who recalls vomiting twice a week. "You hide it, you're totally ashamed, but my parents could see I was really thin." Torres overcame the disorder after several years of therapy but still had a scary moment when she recently put on weight. "I got on a scale and I was 18 lbs. heavier, and just for a second I freaked out," she says. "Then I thought, 'It's okay, it's just muscle,' and I could tell I was really over my problem. Now I eat like a horse."
Torres retired after winning gold at the '92 Olympics and insists she never missed the sport. Just the smell of chlorine made her tell a friend, "I am so glad I don't swim." But once Torres decided to hit the pool again, she left her one-bedroom apartment in New York City for temporary digs in Menlo Park, Calif., where for the past 13 months she has been lifting weights and swimming as many as six hours every other day.
That kind of commitment can be tough on a social life. "It's not like I can really date right now," says Torres. "I'm in bed by 9:30." But the swimmer has big plans for after Sydney, which she swears will be her final lap. "I want to get my career going again," she explains. "And then I want to get married and start a family." Future boyfriends be advised: When she gets that gleam in her eye, she means business.
Debby Seibel in Pasadena