Tom Knott: Guilty of a comeback

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Dara Torres is guilty until proven innocent, and even then she just still might be guilty, as we learned from the sniffling Marion Jones and the rest of her BALCO-fueled cheats.

That is the cynical climate in which sports entertainers labor today.

If an accomplishment looks too good to be true, then we are obligated to imagine the worst. That is the hard-earned conditioned response of the masses after a series of revelations over the last decade.

And the Olympic comeback of Torres reeks. It is not just that she is 41 years old, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter and coming off two surgeries in the last year. It is not just that she has qualified to compete in her fifth Summer Games as the oldest female swimmer in Olympic history. And it is not just that she set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle Sunday and won the 100-meter freestyle in a personal-best time last week at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, topping American-record holder Natalie Coughlin.

It is all of it. It is another case of a high-profile athlete staving off Father Time in improbable fashion. We already have been down this path. We know the drill. And Torres knows the drill as well. She has heard it in the past. She knows her sport is burdened with the synthetically charged. She knows some countries pump up their female swimmers as a matter of government policy.

So Torres sought out the powers-that-be of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after returning to competitive swimming two years ago and implored them to pick, probe and test her body with the best tools available to show she was clean.

Torres is part of the agency’s new program, in which testers form body-chemistry profiles of athletes through blood and urine samples before using the profile as a foundation in subsequent testing.

Since opting into the program, Torres says she has been tested 12-15 times and shown to be clean, which proves nothing in the Dr. Frankenstein age of performance-enhancing drugs.

It seems the cheats are always ahead of the testers, with new masking agents inevitably being developed the moment drug-testing bodies have uncovered the latest one.

That was the beauty of BALCO. Its cocktail was undetectable. That is how Jones could go around proclaiming that she never had failed a drug test, even though she was as juiced as they come.

Passing a drug test is merely a step and a small one at that.

All this speculation is unfair to Torres. She could be the exception, the one-in-a-zillion genetic freak. In a more innocent time, we would be celebrating her achievement, rhapsodizing about the physical wonders of Mermaid Mom.

And to her credit, Torres recognizes that part of her time in Beijing will be spent dealing with the skepticism. Her unprecedented ascent demands it. It exceeds the customary parameters of aging athletes in other sports; swimmers are usually finished by their late 20s because of the intensive aerobic demands of the sport.

Torres endured the drug inquisition of the Sydney Games in 2000, when she was en route to winning five medals at the mere age of 33. Eight years and one pregnancy later, she is back, stronger than ever, asking us to believe once more.

America used to salute those athletes who pushed the age boundary. Nolan Ryan was 43 when he threw the sixth no-hitter of his career. As if to show it was not a fluke, he threw the last no-hitter of his career the next season at age 44. Warren Spahn won 23 games at age 42 in 1963. George Blanda was selected the NFL MVP at age 43.

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