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Swimmer Dara Torres set for biggest challenge yet

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Dara Torres has downloaded a bunch of movies and piled up all sorts of books, anything to pass the time over the next few months.

She won't be racing anyone in the pool for a while - or doing much of anything else, for that matter.

Another Olympics? No one really knows.

The 42-year-old Torres is heading to Boston for the most daunting challenge of her long swimming career Tuesday, a radical surgery that involves cutting her left shin, adjusting it to a new position under the kneecap and inserting cartilage that will take up to a year to fully develop.

"Just thinking about it," said her coach, Michael Lohberg, "makes me about want to faint."

Torres isn't exactly thrilled about undergoing such a major operation, but she figures it's the only chance to have what is a normal life for her: being active, working out, keeping herself in top physical condition. The swimming part is almost secondary, though she hasn't ruled out trying to compete in a record sixth Olympics - at age 45!

My, what a comeback story that would be.

"I want to have that choice a year from now," Torres said. "I want to be able to say, 'Yes, I want to go for this' or, 'No, I don't want to.' But I want it to be my choice, not because of my knee."

While confident in her decision to have what is known in medical parlance as a tibial tubercle osteotomy, Torres was understandably worried as she counted down the days to such a major operation.

"I'm on edge a little bit," she told The Associated Press over the weekend when reached by telephone at a swim clinic in New Jersey, where she wasn't able to fully demonstrate what she was teaching. "I'm glad to be getting this over with, but I have no idea how the recovery is going to go. It's sort of an unknown. I don't know how my body will react.

"We'll just have to wait and see," she added. "It's a long road to recovery. That's sort of hard for me. I like answers right away. I want to know what's going on."

The full recovery period could drag on as long as 18 months, which poses the biggest challenge to Torres. She's spent her entire life in go-go-go mode, and now she'll have no choice except to slow down if she wants to have the best shot at coming all the way back, to actually get a shot at swimming in the 2012 London Games.

Lohberg said he's not as concerned about Torres swimming again as he is about her being able to resume her regular routine. At the moment, just walking around is painful, and getting up and down stairs is agonizing.

"The thing is, she is totally a fitness freak," the coach said. "She loves to be fit like other people like coffee or a smoke, whatever. It's like an addiction for her, a fitness addiction. She needs to be able to use her body to its fullest."

Torres has already come back twice from supposed retirements, and there's certainly nothing left to prove after she won three silver medals at age 41 in Beijing. But one gets the feeling she knows this would be her greatest accomplishment - if she can actually pull it off.

"From a short period of time that I have met and gotten to know Dara, it is clear to me that she is one of the most fiercely competitive and 'winningest' persons I have ever met, with a tremendous work ethic," Dr. Tom Minas, who will perform Tuesday's operation, wrote in an e-mail to the AP. "I would be very wary if I were her competition."

After the surgery, Torres will recuperate in Boston for three to five days, then she'll spend six weeks on crutches. Her only physical activity over the next month will be monitored by a CPM (continuous passive motion) machine, which she'll be attached to for several hours each day. She can start riding an exercise bike after four to six weeks, but she must be careful not to overdo it for nine to 12 months while the new cartilage is growing into a firm, hard tissue - a necessary step if she wants to be rid of the pain she began experiencing after her arthritic knee wiped out all the cartilage that had been there, basically leaving her with one bone rubbing against another.

Minas said a less-radical arthroscopic procedure has already been attempted and would do no good at this point.

"She experiences a painful grinding sensation accompanied by swelling in the joint and ongoing inflammation whenever she attempts to be active," he wrote. "Aside from her swimming, her quality of life with day-to-day activities is painful and limited whenever she tries to become more active to stay fit."

True to her Type A personality, Torres has furiously been setting her life in order, from cleaning her home in Florida to preparing young daughter Tessa for a mother who won't be able to hold her like she does now, at least for a while. The reading list includes Jon Krakauer's new book about Pat Tillman, the late Ted Kennedy's memoir and the novel "American Adulterer." She's also got the sixth season of "Entourage" and a bunch of movies ready to punch up, from the latest James Bond flick to "The Manchurian Candidate."

"I went nuts on DVDs," she joked.

But no matter how many books she reads or movies she watches, nothing will replace the thrill of gliding through the water, or going on an early morning bike ride.

"At some point, she will freak out," Lohberg said, breaking into a hearty chuckle. "This is going to be a new experience for her. This is a new dimension to her life that she hasn't seen yet. This is so totally against what she is, really. But sometimes, you do what you've got to do and you learn new lessons."

The coach has dealt with this himself, waging a daily fight over the past year with a rare, life-threatening blood disorder. Seeing what Lohberg has gone through will surely provide Torres with some necessary perspective when she's feeling sorry for herself or just going stir-crazy, which will inevitably happen during the long road to recovery.

"The good thing about her situation is at some point, there really is a light at the end of the tunnel," Lohberg said.

So, does he think Torres will make it all the way back? If they put odds on these sort of things, would he be willing to place a bet on her swimming in London in three years?

"It may be a long shot," Lohberg said, without hesitation, "but I would put my money on Dara."


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