Home All “Dara” To Be Great: Gold Medals, Grit & Goals

“Dara” To Be Great: Gold Medals, Grit & Goals

written by Caroline Adams Miller 9 July 2008

Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, ACC is a performance coach, author, and motivational speaker who specializes in helping people design and achieve their life goals. Full bio.

If you would like to reprint a Caroline Miller column, please email Caroline Miller for permission. Caroline's articles are here.

Last Sunday night, seven women gathered around my television set as a shapely, but taut, body of a drop-dead gorgeous woman filled the screen.

“How can she wear that thing and look so good?” one exclaimed.

“Black makes you look thinner, but this is ridiculous. She looks half her age, and even acts half her age!” another said.

“She should be a model,” one intoned as a hush fell over the room and the action began in earnest.

Was this a “Sex in the City” party? A gathering to celebrate shows about beauty at any age, such as “She’s Got the Look”? Or possibly a rerun of “The Devil Wears Prada”?

Dara does glamorNope. What transfixed seven middle-aged women, including me, was the finals of the women’s 50 meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. The woman whose body, life, and exploits have captivated us and millions of others around the world is the newest icon of women who want to play bigger in life and go after their goals, regardless of age – Dara Torres.

For less than one minute, the women in my goal-setting accountability group, affectionately known as, “More Than a Book Club,” watched and screamed in delight as Torres, a 41-year-old mother of a two-year-old girl, broke the American record in the event and locked in her place on her fifth Olympic team for the second time last week (she won the 100-meter freestyle, as well).

Dara celebrates her winTorres is not only the oldest American woman to make an Olympic swim team, she is one of the most remarkable athletes ever in the history of any sport known to mankind because she not only beat everyone in her age group, she beat everyone in every age group in a sport dominated by youth and strength.

As Torres squinted at the scoreboard to make sure she had finished first, the elite athletes around her, most of them half her age, looked at her and the scoreboard in mixtures of awe and disappointment. “The Mom” had won – again.

Dara winsAs a goal-setting specialist, and primary author of the upcoming book, Creating Your Best Life, (Sterling, January 2009), I am fascinated by what Torres has single-handedly done to whip up hope and happiness among people who long to not only accomplish all types of athletic and professional goals, but who dare to go past the “freakout” point and take risks to get more out of life than they once thought possible.

For days, my phone has rung off the hook about the fact that my clients now have more courage to face their own fears in new ways because of what they saw on television in Torres’ accomplishments. A late-fifties mom of a disabled child signed up for a creative writing class so that she can start her own blog. A therapist bought a book on money management and began to chart her out-of-control spending habits. A policeman’s wife decided to enter a 10K race so that she could get out of the house more regularly to pursue her own fitness goals.

I study and write about the intersection between goal accomplishment and happiness, and I know how potent role models are in instilling hope in others that they can go after their own goals. But Torres has gone beyond the Masters swimming moms with her accomplishments, as far as I can see, and has galvanized women all over the world to dream a little bigger about what their own lives can be.

Let’s examine what Torres has done, and what we can all learn from her around the topic of happiness and creating your own best life right now:

  1. Dara on the blocksTorres had “challenging and specific” performance goals, which goal setting theory states is the best type of goal when one is seeking a specific outcome. She not only wanted to make the Olympic team and become the oldest American swimmer to do so, she now wants to win a medal at the Games in Beijing. There is nothing vague about Torres’ ambitions, and that was crucial in identifying the path she’d need to take to get to her destination.
  2. Torres believed in herself, but knew that it would take a village to get to the Olympics. Although some have criticized the pricey retinue of stretchers, coaches, nutritionists and massage therapists who advise and train her, Torres refused to go it alone, and knew that high achievers surround themselves with other high achievers who elicit the best from them. The newest findings out of Harvard Medical School from Nicholas Christakis and colleagues around social contagion theory demonstrate that people adopt the values of the people closest to them, whether it’s overeating or quitting smoking. Torres surrounded herself with the best people she could find who had the training methods, attitude and positive energy she required for her journey.
  3. Torres understands the concept of “eustress,” or “good stress.” She challenges her body daily through swimming, weight training and other key exercises, and then is fanatical about getting enough rest and proper nutrition to recover sufficiently so that she can continue to grow. Pursuing any goal is stressful because it requires going outside your comfort zone, but to maximize your potential, you must always retreat back into safe waters after depleting yourself. Too much of one or the other is damaging, and Torres achieved the proper balance.
  4. Torres was not willing to settle for a small dream, and her competitiveness led her to go after audacious goals and break new ground. A brand-new study about golfers might explain part of the reason why she can do this. Witt and colleagues have found that elite golfers who sink putts regularly say that they see the hole as “huge” in their mind’s eye, while poor putters say that the hole always looks small or “dime-sized.” Is it possible that elite athletes develop this outlook because they see a world of possibilities that are expansive – like big golf holes – while the rest of us only see tiny holes that are almost impossible to make?
  5. Torres had what Angela Duckworth calls grit. She had shoulder surgery in recent months that might have downed lesser athletes, but she never seems to quit or find excuses to slack off her training. Any study of goal-setters finds that greatness demands at least ten years of “deliberate practice” to become good at something. Torres has been swimming for over three decades, and she has continued to find ways to get faster and stronger into middle age.

Dara and daughterWhat are the takeaways from a Positive Psychology perspective about Torres’ amazing achievements?

First, going after your goals brings you joy. Having a purpose, with clear and measurable feedback along the way, can transform a reactive existence into a meaningful life. When NBC commentator, Tim Russert, died recently, his wife noted that he had had a happy life because he’d gone after all of his dreams and achieved them. Torres will always know that she went after multiple goals that mattered to her and she achieved them against staggering odds.

Relationships matter. There is no goal or situation in life that doesn’t benefit from having positive, strong friendships with people who can guide, celebrate and commiserate with you.

Taking care of your body contributes to happiness. Research from the University of Bonn has shown that vigorous exercise creates “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. Despite the brutality of the thousands of hours of training that Torres has undergone, she says that swimming makes her happy and gives her a better attitude to deal with the challenges of raising a pre-schooler.

Going after your goals with accountability has been found to help address the U-shaped curve of depression that strikes middle-aged women all over the world around the age of 44. Torres had athletic goals, but any type of goal tied to a meaningful value can have the same impact on the woman who wonders, “Is this all there is?”

My suggestion to everyone reading this column is to make Dara Torres your screensaver on your computer right now. Gary Latham, the co-founder of goal setting theory, recently found that people raised more money when they had a picture of a winning athlete superimposed on the fundraising guidelines that were right in front of them, as opposed to people who saw the same guidelines without any image.

So why not superimpose Dara Torres’ euphoric and triumphant smile on something that you see often and then track just how incredible your own life can be?



Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.

Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.

Ross, P. (2008). The expert mind. Scientific American.

Shantz, A., & Latham, G. P. (2008, April). An exploratory field experiment of the effect of subconscious and conscious goals on employee performance. Paper presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference, San Francisco, CA.

University of Bonn (2008). Runners’ High Demonstrated: Brain Imaging Shows Release Of Endorphins In Brain. Science News.

Witt, J. K., Linkenauger, S. A., Bakdash, J. Z., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Putting to a bigger hole: Golf performance relates to perceived size. Psychon. Bull. Review, 15, 581-585.

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Wayne Jencke 9 July 2008 - 4:44 pm

Torres goal appears to be a “zero sum” goal which research shows is bad for happiness.


If swimming 1000’s of hours is the only way to make yourself happy then you have a problem. What happens when you can’t swim 1000’s of hours?

People lose sight of how goals work – they provide momentum for people to engage. They also provide a feeling of self efficacy (a positive emotion)

Jeff Dustin 9 July 2008 - 5:44 pm

That’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve often thought of doing some kind of endurance athletics. What is it about grueling contests that are so gripping? Plus your article showcases GRIT which is my favorite of the psychological principles. I’ve been a huge fan of Dr. Duckworth since her graduate school days. Great work, Coach Caroline!

Caroline Miller 9 July 2008 - 5:53 pm

Thank you for your thoughts, Wayne. I respectfully disagree with your opinion, though.

Torres has God-given talent that she chose to pursue in the hopes that she could break barriers and become as excellent as she possibly could. This is the same motivation that drives people with teaching gifts to become excellent instructors, writers to write the best book they can, and for gifted mathematicians to try to solve puzzles like Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Torres found her signature strengths, aligned her goals around them, and applied herself with grit, passion, determination and joy. God bless anyone who does this in any endeavor.

Nowhere has it been said that swimming is the only pathway to happiness in her life, either. It’s probably one of many, as she has lived a storied and interesting life.

No zero-sum game here in my opinion — sorry!

Caroline Miller 9 July 2008 - 6:14 pm

Hi Jeff,
Thanks for your thoughts. I think that the endurance races or challenges have a way of grabbing our imaginations and leaving us to wonder what we’re capable of when the chips are down. I think they also serve the purpose of awing and elevating us to become our own best selves, as Jon Haidt would say.

wayne jencke 9 July 2008 - 7:13 pm

Have you ever asked the meta question – why do goals work?

There is research showing that achieving goals is secondary to other factors with regards to happiness (eg self efficacy). I can send the reserach through if you are interested.

However I do have to acknowledge that goals are important for some people – like yourself – but note everybody

I guess I’d also question why are athletes notoriously unhappy when they retire?

Caroline Miller 9 July 2008 - 8:59 pm

Actually, the research is clear that happiness and goal accomplishment is a bi-directional pursuit, and I just spent months immersed in research about it because of my next book, “Creating Your Best Life.” I hope you enjoy reading it when it’s published in January. Lots of great, cutting-edge research, and Gary Latham is writing the foreword.

Thanks again for your thoughts,

Jeff Dustin 9 July 2008 - 10:10 pm


I’m excited to read your book as I’ve always enjoyed reading your PPND work.

Do you think that becoming a happier person could form a goal itself? In other words, does happiness require an indirect route, i.e. through doing all the kinds of things Sonja Lyubomirsky recommends in her book?

Not sure if what I’m asking is clear. One more time…do you need a goal that is peripheral to becoming a happier person in order to feel happier? Can improving your happiness be stated as an explicit goal?

Maybe this question is not well-thought out enough. I don’t know how to frame it so that it’ll be clear. How about this: can you become happier through changing your mind, not necessarily pursuing external goals? Are externals like Other People, Prizes, winning, etc. requirements for becoming happier?

Feel free to email me or comment back if this makes sense or doesn’t. Thanks!

wayne jencke 9 July 2008 - 10:44 pm

Caroline, The interesting thing I learnt from undergraduate psychology is the research is never clear primarily because it doesn’t control for other variables – eg conscientiousness, self efficacy, locus of control

I’m writing a positive psychology course on wellness and the conclusion I have drawn based on my literature search is that the relationship between goals and happiness is correlational – not causative.

I look forward to reading your book and the cutting edge research.

Jo 10 July 2008 - 6:12 am

Hi Caroline

Great post – I’ll pimp it on twitter for the UK audience shortly!

I like the “freakout” moment and the idea of thinking big enough to organize the support you want and need.

I see the willingness to involve others in your dreams as socially supportive. Belonging to something bigger than oneself brings meaning and all the nutritionists, trainers, etc are looking for a project to join in on.

I can imagine youngsters waking up with a dream – I want to support a gutsy elite athlete aiming to be at 2012! I am going to be part of this!


Kathryn Britton 10 July 2008 - 8:04 pm

Hey Caroline,

It amazes me how much the picture looks like you. I keep having to look at the fine print to make sure it isn’t you.

This reminds me of Albert Bandura’s 2nd approach to self-efficacy: vicarious mastery. That is, we grow in self-efficacy as we observe others like us achieving mastery and the more like us they are, the stronger the effect.

For those of us who aren’t tall, blonde and svelte — and have never been swimmers — perhaps the efficacy gains are less than they are for you. But it’s a great reminder to keep eyes open for other types of masters who do resemble us closely.


Caroline Miller 10 July 2008 - 8:38 pm

Hi Jeff,
I think that becoming happier is unique to each person, and the shift can indeed be internal, as in a mental shift. I think that the meditation research shows us a lot about this topic, as a matter of fact. I know some people who have the goal to get happier, and they often pursue it by adding things into their lives — like more rest, music, friendship, or hobbies — and that does it for them. But just going after happiness with grit? Don’t think that that is a great goal — it’s more of a byproduct.
Hope I answered that one in a way that illuminates my own understanding of goals and well-being, and the ways they intersect.

Caroline Miller 10 July 2008 - 8:41 pm

Hey Kathryn,
I’ll take that compliment any day! Thanks! But I’m way slower than Dara, and always will be, although I do understand the joy that comes from going outside your comfort zone in a sports endeavor and smiling from the sheer happiness of completion.

I love Bandura’s work, and I am very interested in the impact that Torres is having across multiple life domains with this achievement. I see lots of people, not just swimmers, loving her audacity about going after what she wants and reveling in its achievement. Fascinating — I don’t remember another athlete having this type of impact on my clients, but I’m sure going to track it.
Thanks for the post!

Jeff Dustin 10 July 2008 - 8:54 pm

That answered my question thoroughly. I appreciate it.

Caroline Miller 11 July 2008 - 1:54 pm

Hi Jo:

I have to confess my stupidity. What does this mean?
“Great post – I’ll pimp it on twitter for the UK audience shortly!”

How does one “twitter” to the UK?


SteveM 11 July 2008 - 3:06 pm

I just found this website yesterday. Great content! I was reviewing earlier columns and came across a thread from last fall related to to-do lists and self-regulation. I see Jeff Dustin posting here. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to pass on a suggestion him since I do not know his e-mail address.

Jeff, I read your thread entries and your struggles with goal setting and to-do lists sound just like mine. And I have mine because I have ADD. So you may want to get that checked out. If you do have it and get it fixed, you’ll be happier for sure.

Secondly to anybody who reads this, a neat, but simple “life management” system is a piece of software called “PersonalBrain”, http://www.thebrain.com Cool, visual way to categorize and classify anything including to-do’s. You can download a free trial version, with the basic version remaining active after the trial period expires. That still works just fine. e-me if you need any assistance navigating it.

I look forward to interacting with you all in the future.


Washington, DC

Wayne Jencke 12 July 2008 - 2:05 am

Caroline, would you mind providing some references on your research on challenging goals etc. I want to make sure my wellness students get the latest research.

Jeff Dustin 12 July 2008 - 1:38 pm


Thanks for your comments. I don’t believe I have ADD. I looked up some websites that claim to understand the disorder and I can’t really say that I match the symptoms.

Good thinking, though and I appreciate your ideas.

SteveM 12 July 2008 - 3:51 pm


Of course you know yourself. Just one last point about ADD. There are up to 6 types, ref: http://www.aqeta.qc.ca/english/general/types/20.htm

Only a couple show the complete and obviouss manifestations. The others are “silent” types. I.e. very distracting but not disruptive. And these types can be very frustrating because of the ambiguity.

I realize totally that your health is your business. So will close this out.



Dave Shearon 14 July 2008 - 9:31 am

Caroline, a historical example of this same phenomena, would be George Blanda with the Oakland Raiders. My memory is that he had been an NFL quarterback, but late in his career, he was a field goal kicker and 3rd-string quarterback. Injuries caused him to have to play and he led the team to several victories performing well along the way. Fortyish guys around the country took heart. I was MUCH younger at the time and didn’t understand the psychological impact, but I suspect it was similar to Ms. Torres’ impact on women.

SteveM 14 July 2008 - 10:23 am

Re: Blanda

I remember one Raider’s game in which George improvised a totally improbable come-from-behind win. When the gun went off, the announcer breathlessly shouted:

“George Blanda has just been elected KING OF THE WORLD!!”

Dave Shearon 14 July 2008 - 10:59 am

Wayne (and Caroline) — Re: “Zero-Sum” goals, I think athletic competition is an interesting area in this regard. It certainly gives the appearance of zero-sum, win/lose situations. However, one of the secrets behind having a great “mental game” is the ability to see the non-zero aspects as primary. It’s like the famous drawing that can be seen as an old lady/young woman. When an athlete is able to foreground the non-zero aspects, I suggest performance improves. Others may be better able to point to research in this area. Just as an example, imagine a baseball pitcher who gives up a walk-off, three-run home run but walks off the field with his head up and feeling good about his pitching because he recognizes that he made a good pitch (or pitched a good game). That pitcher is far more likely to pitch well in his next outing than one who walks off dejected because he is focusing on the outcome. In this scenario, the pitcher can even recognize the achievement of the hitter — “Hey, he hit a great pitch!” In fact, the pitcher can say, “He’s a great hitter — that’s the kind of guy I want to face — I’ll get him next time!” Thus, though one “wins” and another “loses”, both can walk off feeling and thinking like “winners.” Although it may sound to some hard-core competitive types with a zero-sum orientation like some kind of fake positivity, in reality that type of thinking is critical to athletic success, and it is fostered by minimizing the zero-sum aspects of the game and maximizing the non-zero.

Wayne Jencke 14 July 2008 - 3:17 pm

Dave – great insight – unfortunately most athletes have “zero sum” goals and consequently they don’t have a great mental game. And most goal setting books (and coaching courses) don’t cover your insight. Perhaps an opportunity for you.

Lianne 2 August 2008 - 12:06 am

Hi Caroline,

Very interesting article. I am curious as to what effect you think you might see if it were to be discovered that Dara is using performance enhancing drugs. Would there be any fallout for those who drew courage and hope from her accomplishments?



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