View Full Version : Sheila Taormina - Three Different Olympic Sports

August 24th, 2008, 11:00 PM

Taormina's life runs parallel to stress-filled modern pentathlon
McClatchy Newspapers
August 22, 2008

BEIJING - When Sheila Taormina chose to become a modern pentathlete, little did she know her life would come to parallel the stressful challenges of the sport.

Over the course of 11 hours Friday, she survived five events - on land, in water and on horseback - shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running to the finish line of her odyssey. She is the first female athlete to compete in three different Olympic sports.

"Now my life begins," said Taormina, beaming out of a sense of relief because her love-hate relationship with the sport is over. "I want a dog. I've never had time for a dog."

Crammed into one day: Five costume changes at three venues, including fencing mask, Speedo bodysuit and equestrian blazer. Taormina endured a horrid round of fencing, during which she said "I could have closed my eyes and gotten more points"; swam an Olympic record in the 200-meter freestyle, and coaxed a horse she had never met named Liangliang to a perfect score over 15 jumps.

Taormina, 39, finished a respectable 19th , ahead of a teammate who is less than half her age.

"It's so draining it's like a catharsis at the end," she said after running 1.86 miles around the stadium track. "I have no regrets. I wondered about that a few days ago. No medal, but it was worth it."

Sometimes sport imitates life. To get to Beijing, Taormina overcame a difficult learning curve, financial straits, depression and a stalker.

She picked the most anachronistic sport in the Olympics, invented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who modernized the ancient pentathlon of discus/javelin/jumping/running/wrestling by turning it into the mission of a soldier delivering a message in battle - fighting with pistol and sword, swimming through a river and riding and running through the woods.

It's a bizarre and expensive sport, often on the brink of elimination from the bloated Olympic program. Army Lt. George S. Patton finished fifth in 1912. Boris Onischenko was disqualified in 1976 when his epee was found to be wired with a circuit breaker.

After a solid shooting performance, Taormina lost 31 of 35 epee bouts and contemplated bailing out. But she saw her older sister, Sudee, in the stands and climbed up on a chair to talk to her.

"I could barely stay in my own skin I was so frustrated," Taormina said. "She looked in my eyes and said, 'You cannot want.'"

Meaning, you can't give up now, not after all you've been through, not with mother Moya, 81, and father Sam, 85, from Livonia, Mich., watching the youngest of their eight children competing in modern pentathlon for the first time.

Taormina, a former Olympian in swimming and triathlon, moved on to the pool, where she finished with the fastest time, 2:08.86.

A few hours later, going off the eighth jump, she headed toward No. 5, until she realized her error and turned Liangliang in the right direction. Not so fortunate were the riders aboard Naonao - let's call him No-No - who threw one, stepped on another and balked at the jumps for a third. During men's pentathlon the day before, a horse fell on top of a rider and another gashed his rider's face into a bloody pulp. It wasn't as bad as 1968, when West Germany's Hans-Jurgen Todt attacked Ranchero after the horse balked at three jumps, knocking him out of medal contention. Todt had to be restrained by teammates. Athletes draw their horses 20 minutes before jumping.

"Our trainer teaches you how to communicate with the animal during warm-up," said Taormina, who tied for first in show jumping - but did Liangliang understand English? "Liangliang did a good job. I would have been mortified if I went over the wrong jump."

After her seventh-place run of 10:25.05, Taormina thought about how much higher her total of 5,304 would have been with better fencing.

"That's pentathlon - 'What if?'" she said. "What if I came back in four years and improved my fencing?" Then she laughed and slapped herself in the face. "No, Sheila!"

"Hey, maybe I could lose some weight and do the Kentucky Derby," said the 5-3 Taormina. "No, I wouldn't do that to my mom. She had to watch the ride on video after it was over. When I started triathlon, she'd say, 'Oh, honey, I'm so scared about you on that bike, could you just stick with swimming?' Then when I started pentathlon, she said, 'Oh, honey, I'm so scared about you on the horses, could you just stick with triathlon?'"

Taormina's story is one of Olympian perseverance.

In 2005, when she took up modern pentathlon, she had never held a gun or sword, never ridden a horse.

"I was like, 'What's a riposte?'" she said.

She had won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 4x200-meter freestyle team at the 1996 Olympics and finished sixth and 23rd in the triathlon at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. She was ready to retire until a coach planted the idea of the three-sport challenge. Taormina originally tried to do it in cross country skiing, training in the Upper Peninsula of her native Michigan.

"I was falling on my face all the time," she said. "There were times I'd see tracks and think I was going to be eaten by a bear."

She moved to Clermont, Fla., to learn pentathlon, but it was exhausting, and sponsorships never materialized to offset her $50,000 in training expenses and she had to sell her house to avoid defaulting on her mortgage.

A man posing as a triathlete began sending her letters, flowers and messages saying they'd marry and have a child. He was eventually sent to prison and was released in January. Taormina hasn't heard from him.

The stress dragged her into a depression.

"I'd cry, cry all day and my family said, 'It's too much, Sheila,'" she said. But she didn't want to wake up years later, haunted by regret.

In Beijing, she completed her mission and delivered her message.

"Now I'll have time to write a book," she said. "We all struggle. Don't feel alone."