Torres advances in 50 free at trials

Jessica Hardy was the leading qualifier in the 50-meter freestyle preliminaries at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials Sunday, while Dara Torres had the fifth-fastest time in her bid to make a record sixth Olympic team at age 45.

Hardy won the last of 16 heats in 24.55 seconds Sunday morning while swimming next to Torres, who touched second at 25.00.

”It’s really fun to race her. She brings out a level of excitement,” said Hardy, the surprise winner of the 100 free Saturday night after failing to make the team in her 100 breaststroke specialty. ”She’s an inspiration. She’s in better shape physically than all of us.”

Torres is competing in just one event at trials after winning three silver medals four years ago in Beijing. She would be the first American to swim in six Olympics if she finishes in the top two of Monday’s final.

”This is the first time I’ve ever come to trials and had no idea how I’m going to do,” Torres said.

Her appearance on the deck was greeted with big cheers and shouts of ”Let’s go, Dara!” before she stepped on the blocks. Torres bent over and rested her hands on her knees before getting into her starting position.

After Beijing, she took 16 months off for a radical surgery on her left knee that involved cutting her left shin, adjusting it to a new position under the kneecap and inserting cartilage that took up to a year to fully develop.

”It’s a lot tougher this time,” Torres said. ”When I was 41 people said I was middle-aged, but now I’m really, really middle-aged.”

Torres has retired twice before, including one stretch that lasted seven years between the 1992 and 2000 Olympics.

”In ’08 it was about winning medals,” she said. ”This time it’s about making the team.”

Christine Magnuson, trying to make her second Olympic team, qualified second in 24.75. Two-time Olympian Kara Lynn Joyce and Madison Kennedy tied for third at 24.93.

Amanda Weir, back on the Olympic team for the first time since 2004, was eighth.

Among the 16 women – mostly 20-somethings – moving on to the evening semifinals was Erika Erndl. The 34-year-old former North Carolina swimmer was 13th. She has competed at trials before and didn’t make the team.