In hindsight I can see I was heading into psychologically tricky terrain when, last spring, nearing midnight at the Houston Airport, I decided to text message Dara Torres about just how much we have in common. Random electronic bonding late at night on the road is never a great idea. It's especially ill-advised when you fail to recognize that you fancy yourself in competition with an Olympian.
Torres, you probably remember, is that 42-year-old Olympic swimmer with a breathtaking body who won three silver medals in Beijing.
On the night of my fateful text, I was flying to report a profile of her for the New York Times Magazine, a piece that turned out to serve largely as an excuse to print a remarkable photograph of a human being's abdominal muscles. Out of travel-induced loneliness and a shameless reporter's desire to connect, I decided to inform Torres about some rather stunning similarities between us. Or so they seemed to me at the time.
We're about the same age. We both have Jewish fathers in real estate and daughters in preschool. And I started out by telling Torres that I've been accused of being ambitious and competitive myself.
I sat at my gate and took a few bites of my super burrito. Torres texted back: "Hahaha. U r nothing compared 2 me."
For the next four days, I traipsed behind Torres, taking puny, illegible notes while she got fantastic amounts of exercise and had equally fantastic amounts of bodywork done. Forget the swimming; consider the weighted pull-ups. Before the trip I'd actually felt proud that on a good day I could grab an overhead railing of the slide at my kids' playground and hoist my face, twice, up to my wrists. Now that achievement felt small indeed, as Torres blasted through sets of 15, five pounds on each ankle, effortlessly and with perfect form.
En route home I felt like a duckling who'd mistakenly imprinted on an eagle: all well and good in the nest, but truly precarious when it's time to leave the aerie and pick off rodents from 5,000 feet.
So when Torres later asked me to co-write her memoir, Age Is Just a Number, I knew I needed to protect myself. Who wants to spend four months writing 70,000 words about a super-in-shape athlete while feeling like a sloth? I decided I needed to get very, very fit.
That meant no more hippy-dippy yoga. I dug out my running shorts and started training for a 13.1-mile race. I'd been a not-embarrassing runner in my 20s, but that was many years and two children ago.
On the day of Torres' last race in Beijing—which also happened to be the day a 38-year-old Romanian mother named Constantina Tomescu-Dita kicked ass and won the women's marathon—I laced up my running shoes, put on my infernal Nike+ pedometer, and set myself a goal: to run 12 miles at a sub-eight-minute pace. I was doing pretty well, actually, meeting my target times, until I got 10 miles out, and my body came to an abrupt and definitive stop. By the time I'd hobbled home, the left side of my rib cage was aligned over my belly button. Hours later I started up a relationship with my new chiropractor, Frank.
"How the hell did you do this?" Frank, a Red Sox fan, asked in his Boston accent.
I explained the deal with Torres and how I'd decided to use extreme exercise to head off potential psychic disturbance.
Frank did not think much of my plan. "Those people's bodies are different, you know," he said, putting my neck in a half Nelson. My spine made sounds like exploding popcorn.
While my back healed, I walked. I did weird crunches on a Swiss ball. I talked to Torres a lot on the phone (often while she drove between practice and a massage, or got stretched in her living room while her daughter napped). To meet our book deadline, I needed to write 5,000 words a week, which meant I spent nearly ever waking hour in what I called the "bat cave" (my basement office), leaving little time to pursue fitness, to say nothing of doing more for my children than getting them off to school in the morning and into bed at night.
Meanwhile Torres—having missed a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle by one one-hundredth of a second, the smallest margin possible in swimming—had decided not to retire. She was sticking to her pre-Olympic workout schedule. Even when I was Florida to work with her on the book, she spent two hours a day in the pool, another 90 minutes in the weight room, then actively worked on muscle recovery (so she could work out again the next day) with stretchers and masseuses. The whole process took six hours, nearly a full work day.
Eventually, I figured these trips would be a good time for me to get my own exercise plans on track. But after 90 minutes in the gym, I'd pretty much exhaust myself and my workout repertoire. I'd head back to Torres' house and take notes about the framed snapshots in her living room and then, three hours later, meet her for lunch. I had to accept that I was part of Torres' team, not her peer. She employed a head coach, a sprint coach, a weight coach, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor, and a nanny. I was the outsourced brain.
Before I fell asleep on one of my last nights in Torres' guestroom, the five-time Olympian knocked on the door. There, in her jammies, her arms rippling with muscles, she gave me her Olympic windbreaker (or, really, one of her five Olympic windbreakers).
I came home and immediately wore it to the grocery store, hoping, at least when I first zipped it up, that the jacket would bestow on me some of the superpowers I'd been not so secretly craving. But even before I'd reached the end of my block I felt like a poser. I was not looking for social status, as I had been in college when I'd worn by boyfriend's varsity jacket. I was looking for actual transformation. And that, of course, couldn't be had. I ripped off the windbreaker as soon as walked in the house and shoved it in my bottom drawer.
"Why haven't you been wearing the jacket?" my husband asked once the manuscript was wrapped up. "You earned the right. You wrote her book."
I do not agree. In the end, the only way I could sanely identify with Torres was to apply her work ethic to my own pursuits. She believes that the athlete who works the smartest, the most ferociously, and with the most heart deserves to win. You can say that about writers, too. So the windbreaker is staying in my bottom drawer. I will wear it when I win a Pulitzer. Or, OK, when I have a six-pack.