Last month, Sheila Taormina became one of the five members of the inaugural class of the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. Taormina came a long way from the humble beginnings of her odyssey to Olympic fame.
Back in 1993-1994, when she had just finished graduate school in business at the University of Georgia, Sheila Taormina had a great job lined up in the automotive industry back home in Michigan. She was going on 25 and hadn’t made the Olympic teams in 1988 and 1992, but she had that a dream and was torn in familiar direction far riskier than helping sell automobiles. She admits she was fearful, asking herself ‘What if I turn down that job, try for the 1996 Olympic team and don’t make it?’ At the same time, she applied for the US resident team for swimming and was rejected.
So instead of training with the elites in the splendid athletic palace known as the Olympic Training Center, Taormina pursued her dream in far more humble circumstances.
Sheila Taormina: It's funny being rejected by the resident program it was almost like they were saying ‘We don’t believe in you.’ I didn’t have the performance record and resume behind me. But I believed so much in my future potential. Looking back on this night when I’m about to get into USA Triathlon’s Hall of Fame, this award means a lot to me. It means they saw I really tapped into my full potential. Back in 1994 I never would have guessed that I n the next 15 years I’d go to four Olympic Games in three different sports.
She made the team by a margin of less than 1/10 of a second. But it all hinged on her having the gumption to give up a high paying job, go back to her high school swim coach and train with junior high swimmers and work as a waitress at Waffle House to make ends meet.
Sheila: I look at my swim coach Greg Phill and I can't believe that everything I've experienced and even the decisions I've made, even the decision to try pentathlon, would never have been something I’d have considered if my old coach had not believed in me and helped me prepare for 1996. That opened all the doors.
She was something of an outlier, so she never lost faith and she never became arrogant.
Sheila: I’m so lucky to have had so many people helping me along the way. People now ask who is the greatest athlete in the world. I say nobody in the Olympics is the greatest athlete in the world. You don’t know who the greatest athletes are, because there are children in some countries living on a dirt floor somewhere selling Chiclets to earn a living for their family. I’ve been all around the world and I’ve seen these children. I look at their eyes, I look at their bodies and I think: ‘If you had the opportunity I've had. If you had the support I’ve had, you’d whip my butt out there.’
As her triathlon-coach-to-be Lew Kidder says, Taormina has a true Italian temperament. She is a very passionate person who veers between the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. Still, she had a cool head under pressure. In the 200 meter freestyle finals at the 1996 US Olympic swimming trials, the top six finishers of eight finalists made the Olympic 4x200 meter freestyle relay team.
Sheila: That night I was too afraid to look at the scoreboard because I could see there was a wall of us coming down for the last couple spots. I had a good finish, but I was in Line 2 and you really can’t see the girls in lanes 7 and 8. I didn’t know if I got my hand in to nail the spot or not. I remember I wouldn’t look at the clock at first because I really wanted to make the team and it would be scary to look up and see a number 7 or 8 next to your name. But I had emotionally prepared myself for that. That is the only thing my swim coach Greg Phill and I disagreed on. I said I want to emotionally visualize the worst and I’ll be just fine. So I looked at my coach first and he was all happy. Then I looked at the scoreboard.
It wasn’t my best 200 free. I actually swam slower that night then I did in the preliminaries that morning. But the job was to get one of those spots.
Taormina’s next hurdle was making one of four spots in the Olympic final relay after proving herself in a series of preliminary rounds.
Sheila: I had had the fastest split in the preliminary heats during the Olympics. But there was a discussion the afternoon before the finals because I had very little international experience. I heard feedback later that some coaches had to go to bat for me, because coaches of some of the girls I swam faster than that morning were saying their girls would do better than me under Olympic pressure.
Taormina swam the third leg. Fellow relay finalists Trina Jackson, Cristina Teuscher and Jenny Thompson had slightly faster splits, but the team won gold by 1.68 seconds over the runner-up Germans.
Sheila: It’s true I didn’t have this amazing resume of breaking world records and this and that. But what I did do in sport was never back down and I always maxed out my potential. As human beings, that is what we’re all trying to do, whether we’re doing it in sport or work or family.
Sheila: My first triathlon was just a fun competition in Ann Arbor Michigan in the spring of 1998. I’d gained 10 pounds and wanted to lose a little weight so I did it with my older brother Mark. It was all laid back and I remember laughing the whole time. It was a sunny day, everyone was healthy and happy. It was the right way to do sport.
Then in July of 1998, I did one of Lew Kidder’s triathlons near my home in Livonia. I didn’t know who he was. I think he might have given me my award. Then he called me three months later in October 1998 and told me I had potential. I remember thinking. ‘Oh sir, you don’t know me. I’m not doing this seriously.’ But he invited me to his house. When I came over, he said I had real potential - making Olympic team potential. Right there he said, ‘You have the engine. I think you’ll do great in the sport.’ He also said, ‘I would guide you if you’d like.’ I didn’t say yes at first. I remember saying, ‘I was a swimmer for 21 years and I do not want to make sports my priority ever again.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘I’m not going to do races if it means I am going to miss a speaking engagement. I have a speaking career.’
‘I understand. I understand.’
I’ve heard of other coaches who want to own the athlete. That's a coach whose ego is in it because he wants the glory. Lew Kidder never wanted any glory. He just wanted to help a human being satisfy her potential. He always told me. ‘Hey I am just a tool. I’ll give advice but you make the decisions.’ I think that’s why we clicked. I have a Christian faith and I believe God said ‘I am going to put this person in your life right now and this has all been a grace for you. Now you just do the best you can.’
Taormina’s learning curve was steep and at times painful.
Sheila: My first year in the sport, Lew and his wife, Karen McKeachie, a top age group athlete, took me out for my first bike ride to teach me how to ride in the draft. I was about a month into racing and I was riding in a T shirt and running shorts. I remember they let me lead down the hill. Then when we started the uphill, they just accelerated. Boom! They both dropped me and I was dying trying to catch up to them. Then they stopped at the top and Lew said, ‘Lesson number one. This is what the girls want to do to you in the pro races. Don’t let it happen.’
Her first year of competition, Taormina collapsed in the heat in her first international race in South Africa. Shortly thereafter, she contracted a potentially fatal case of rhabdomyolysis and shut down training for several weeks to recover. Then she had a rude introduction to World Cup racing.
Sheila: My very first World Cup was at Lausanne, Switzerland in 1999. Before that, I hadn’t been able to get into World Cups because I didn’t have enough points. So all the other American girls who were ranked ahead of me would get the eight available spots. So finally I get into this World Cup in Lausanne. Loretta Harrop was number one in the world and a known swim talent. I thought, ‘Great, I will come out of the water with Loretta and we will bike together.’ The swim went as planned, but then I proceeded to make major mistakes.
It was funny. Back then I didn’t know how to clip my shoes into the pedals. I had to put on my shoes, and then run to the mount line wearing them. So there must have been another girl wearing shoes just like mine and I put on those shoes and helmet, and as I was running to the mount line, I realize: This isn’t my bike! None of this is my equipment! Luckily, the women’s swim level back then wasn’t as strong as it is today and I had time to run and put her stuff back and find my own bike. I think it only took 20-30 seconds. In the first mile on the flats before the hills, I took a corner too fast and I didn’t have the skills. So I plowed into the hay bales and got up thinking ‘I can still see Loretta.’ My spirit was to keep going. I thought, ‘It's OK. She will wait for me. No one else had gotten out of the water yet.’ But in the first crash, the clamps froze on my brakes, so when I clipped in and tried to go, I locked up my front wheel and crashed again. Then the whole pack started going by. CHUCKLES. I thought ‘What’s wrong with my bike? Why isn't my wheel turning?’ So I opened up my brakes all the way and my wheel still rubbed in one spot. So I just remember thinking, ‘You are probably going to finish last and it is going to be humiliating. Just finish.’ So after that race, I took a positive outlook. I was thinking ‘Oh the girls who race for USA are so nice. Switzerland is beautiful. And wow, I made a lot of mistakes.’
Then I read the first press report. ‘Well she knows how to swim because she came from swimming, but she sure doesn’t know how to bike or run.’ I remember getting a little mad. I thought: ‘You don’t know me.’ It dampened my spirit.
Taormina was discouraged, but Kidder gently guided her past the shoals.
Sheila: In my first year of triathlon training, things didn’t go that well. I had crashes on the bike, I got dehydrated, and I wasn’t making money. I said, ‘Lew, I have to get into the working world. This isn’t working for me.’ Lew is a lawyer and he came over to my house with a contract and he said “I’m going to give you $10,000, but it isn’t a gift. It’s an investment. I believe in you so much, you will pay me 50% of your race earnings until you have paid me back $12,000. So I’m gonna make money on you. It may take you 10 years to pay me back. It may take you five years. I don’t know how long it will take. However, I have a feeling I’ll get a better return on this investment than the stock market.” We signed that contract and I paid Lew back in eight months.
Even after her Olympic gold medal in swimming, Taormina had a hard time believing in herself. Throughout her career, she deflected the risk of failure and dedicated her races to others, and to God.
Sheila: As an athlete I've always wanted to make Olympic teams more for my coaches because I have had such great coaches – Greg Phill in swimming, Lew Kidder in triathlon and Janusz Peciak in modern pentathlon. When I've made it I was thinking, ‘Oh, this will make him really happy, too. Because what he’s taught me and done for me has been confirmed. It worked.’ Lew was at the Dallas Olympic Trials, and so were my parents, and my twin brother Steven with his wife. I just remember being so happy to share my win with all of them.
Despite being at the top of her game in the extreme heat and out performing the likes of Barb Lindquist, Joanna Zeiger, Siri Lindley and Laura Reback, Taormina had another Perils of Pauline moment in Dallas.
Sheila: On the second lap of the run in Dallas, all of a sudden I see my twin brother Steven in my peripheral vision. He’s jumping up and down, yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ Then he started running alongside. It was so hot and dehydrating and I was getting really tired. But I remember realizing ‘I don’t think he is allowed to run alongside.’ I’m pretty sure that was a rule that Verne Scott helped establish forbidding pacing on the run. I said ‘Stephen! You can’t run alongside me!’ And all of a sudden I see Steven -- Boom! He stopped! He was terrified. He thought he had disqualified me.
After her win at Dallas in 2000, which guaranteed her first triathlon Olympic slot, , Taormina’s first instinct was to offer words of sympathy to her fellow breakaway partner Barb Lindquist, the top-ranked U.S. star who collapsed in the heat on the run.
Sheila: I never cross the finish line feeling yeah! I just beat you! I don't have that feeling in me. Maybe that’s why when someone else doesn't have a good race, my feelings are to let them know they are still an amazing athlete. I want to tell them to keep fighting, keep going. My feelings are always just thankfulness.
Other athletes might race to conquer. I don't want to race to satisfy a killer instinct. I felt I was never able to sell myself to sponsors or for people to think of me as a serious athlete because I like to smile and to hug my competitors after a race or wish them luck before. I sat on the steps of the Opera House after the race in Sydney and I remember one of my competitors made a disparaging comment and it really upset me. I told my sister Sudee, ‘I don’t belong in sports. I love it and I love to race but sometimes I feel like I don’t belong in this world of kill or be killed. I don’t know that I should go on.’ She said, ‘That is exactly why you should stay in it.’ I thought ‘Maybe you’re right.’
SEIZE THE DAY
At the ITU World Championship in Madeira – the second US women’s 2004 Olympic Triathlon qualifier – Taormina broke away on the swim and bike, but let big threats Loretta Harrop and Laura Bennett catch her because she felt so strong she had confidence she could prevail on the run.
Sheila: I didn’t get injured in the 10 weeks leading up to that. I think my running skills could be just as good as my swimming and cycling skills but I was constantly dealing with minor injuries. My IT band was the biggest hurdle. I dealt with that for a year after Sydney. Lew and I are technique hounds, so we switched me from a pretty major heel striker to become more of a mid foot striker. I believe you can learn technique in anything if you focus on it. My IT band would keep me off running for eight weeks at a time. And I’ve always had shin splints.
But I believed in myself at Madeira. I knew when I was having a good day my run would feel good. I felt like a runner. At other times when I wasn't having a good day, my upper body mass from swimming would feel heavy and weigh me down. On the good days, I felt my upper body was helping me. So I made my decision that day that I could have a good run and make this team, even though Laura had just won a silver medal at 2003 ITU Worlds and had been a way better runner.
Sheila: My job at that race was to drop Laura on the bike. I tried but it didn’t work. So I decided to sit up the last two laps. I still made attacks up that big hill because I still thought I needed to drop Laura. But that little bugger had trained to do what she needed to do and she hung with me. Because of her effort on the bike, I had nothing but respect. In those last 400 meters as we came into transition for the run, I had no idea if she would outrun me or not. Most people would have bet that she would have. But as we rode in we held hands and just looked at each other and said: "Have a great run." ‘You too.’’ We squeezed our hands hard because we really meant it.
On the run, I felt so darn good.. I stayed together with Loretta and Laura and a few others the first 2 kilometers and I remember thinking, ‘Why are we going so slowly?’ This was weird. I wanted to go because my bulldog attitude is “Attack! And if you die, you die!” CHUCKLES But I was thinking, ‘You are not an experienced runner like these girls are. Even though it feels easy now, just stay with them. Maybe negative splitting is what they are going to do. Just follow their pace. Don’t think.’
When a couple of other women fell off the pace, then it was just Laura, Loretta and me. I had no idea what pace we were going. I just knew it felt that we weren’t going fast but I ended up running a 34:17 run on a legit 10k course.
Towards the end of the run, maybe three-quarters through, Loretta was leading going into that last tiny hill and she gapped Laura while I was just staying on Laura’s heels. I was thinking: Why can’t Laura keep up this hill with Loretta? I stayed behind for a moment , but I was thinking: 'Well it is kind of between Laura and me to make the team. Just stay behind her.’ Then I thought, ‘You have so much energy. Go with Loretta. Laura is dying.’ So I surged and I just couldn’t believe how easy it felt. I just think sometimes everything aligns for an athlete. It was hormonally a great day. My training had all come together. What I ate was perfect. My muscles somehow had all this energy.
When she realized then that she had earned an individual world championship, Taormina was asked if she could finally believe in her talent.
Sheila: I am an athlete that always knows that I can have horrible days and I can have great days. The only thing I believe is that every time I go out, people will see everything I have to give. That’s all I can ever promise. I know that the days that are bad can be super super ugly. Like what happened in Beijing with the fencing in modern pentathlon.
In the summer of 2002, Taormina answered a call from a man who claimed to be a pro triathlete from Flint, Michigan and wanted advice on triathlon training. Always open and thinking the best of the people she met, Taormina soon found out this man was a stalker whose delusional calls soon turned obscene, threatening rape and other forms of violence. Under siege, she moved from her home in Livonia to the USA Triathlon Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and to Florida. Six months after the stalking began, she got a restraining order, but the man repeatedly violated it. In addition to the stress of the stalking, Taormina was upset and outraged that a misogynistic detective assigned to her case assumed she was at fault and Taormina thought he failed to diligently pursue the stalker. After the stalker repeatedly violated a restraining order and crossing state lines to pursue Taormina, the case went to trial in May of 2003. After her frustrating experience with the reluctant detective, Taormina was even more outraged when the judge asked her, ‘What’s your personal relationship with this man?’ When Taormina said she had none, the judge said ‘You must have had a one-nighter at least.’ When Taormina said she didn’t know the defendant, the judge said ‘I’ll give you one more chance to tell the truth.’ After this mortifying inquisition, the DA made the case and the stalker was sentenced to five years in Michigan prison. Still, Taormina was haunted even as she was at the midst of a third Olympic quest. By her own account, she turned from sunny, optimistic, generous soul to a suspicious, brooding, person.
Sheila: When I got back from Atlanta in 1996, all these people said come to our police and fire days. And come to volunteer here and there, come to the hospital for the kids. I was happy to do that and I did all that. And I never did it before. But when the man started stalking me, I went into the police station seeking help because this strange person left me messages that were strange and scary. I said ‘I don’t know what to make of them.’ And the police did nothing. It was all the way through the entire process that I literally had to say ‘Could you please do your job?’ I became bitter because I started learning in life that not everybody is committed to their jobs the way the Lew Kidders of the world, and my swim coach Greg Pfill and my family, naturally are.
So I started saying ‘I am not doing anything for anybody anymore. I am so mad. Why do I bend over backwards?’ And it was horrible what I did. I brought that to every aspect of my life, Everything, whether it was press whether it was a hospital called me for a favor, I cut them off. I wanted to eliminate communicating with people and that’s what I knew was wrong but I didn’t know how to get out of that mode.
Throughout her scary and nerve wracking ordeal, Sheila Taormina had the unwavering support of Lew Kidder and the officials at USA Triathlon, who took precautions to shield her from the stalker. It was the trust she had with Kidder, USAT and her family that helped her through. But when she decided to tackle modern pentathlon in hopes of making history by making as fourth Olympic team in an unprecedented third sport, she bore the added burden of the collateral psychological damage the stalking had wrought.
Sheila: I was in Colorado Springs to train for modern pentathlon, and I went to see Peter Haberl, who is a sports psychologist. When I came to see him, I laughed, because at the Sydney Olympics he came to the US triathlon training camp down in Wollongong. He was with the US triathletes at the request of our men’s team, Hunter Kemper and Nick Radkewich primarily. Jen Gutierrez and Joanna Zeiger and I - we still giggle about this today. At the time, we thought ‘Why do our men need a sports psychologist?’ When he asked us if we wanted to talk, we said ‘Peter you can come get a coffee with us. We are fine.’ And so, it was ironic when I moved to Colorado Springs and I walked into his office and I said ‘I would like to talk. But not about sports.’ I said ‘I am angry. I want to learn to forgive. I want to learn to like people again. I really am a people person. How do I trust people and not judge them? And I said ‘I am a Christian woman who is doing nothing but judging right now. I can't stop myself from judging. I can tell myself to stop it, but I am not accomplishing it.’ So we worked for a year every day. But still I am not back to who I was before. I still have that lack of trust. But it is much better than it was. So I still have a lot of work to do.
Taormina started off modern triathlon like a house afire. After just six months of training, she won the Pan Am Championship in modern pentathlon with a score that would have won the women’s gold in the first two Olympics. Right after that, she placed third in her very first modern pentathlon World Cup. A well compensated triathlete, she expected that her unique Olympic quest would naturally attract sponsorship.
Sheila: You have to put an little asterisk by my first modern pentathlon scores. The fencing scores change due to the level of competition. But the rest of it was promising. Still, I thought after that competition there would be more sponsors, sponsors would understand what I had just done and ... No one really gets it. What I tried to do in sports was almost too unique. In general, people really only understand what they already know. People can relate to the Tour de France a little because they all rode bikes as a kid. This sport is for the elite and the military.
My next big competition was a World Cup and I actually podiumed. I was third in the very first World Cup of my life. That was against the top European fencers. I scored. That was the best fencing score of my whole career. It's funny almost the more you think. I was living in Florida those two competitions and I didn’t want to move. But when you have a bad attitude and are learning a sport that requires a lot of mental focus, my anger started to come back.
Ultimately, Kidder’s low key guidance and the trust they had established also helped her get through.
Sheila: There is nothing greater a coach can do for an athlete than to believe in that athlete. And telling them the truth. Lew told me the truth when I didn't want to hear it. When I went into pentathlon, I thought sponsorship would be automatic. Why wouldn’t anybody invest in this quest? Looking back on it, when sponsors found out I’ve never been on a horse, never shot a gun, never put on fencing gear, it makes sense.
Lew talked to me when I was upset about that. I had to sell my house to do pentathlon, which involves a lot of money for lessons and travel. We were on the phone and he said 'Kid, nobody owes you a thing. This is your dream, no one else’s. And if you have to sell your house to do it, that's what you have to do.'
Those were no words that a 36 year old woman wanted to hear. I said 'No, people should believe in me! Why won’t they believe in me? I've earned it. It shouldn’t be this tough any more!' He said 'I am telling you the truth. You know what the market is now Sheila? The market is what somebody is willing to pay.'
As it turned out, GM and Visa didn’t come calling. But matching her blue collar work ethic, Taormina did get a crucial sponsorship from the Carpenters and Wheelwrights Union in Detroit.
Sheila: The help the Union gave me enabled me to home again my last year in modern pentathlon. The US Olympic Committee never promoted me. Because, I think, people in marketing want to take different athletes and put them in the same mold they have done every four years. My story was different and to get me in the spotlight would have required people doing a lot of work and developing a whole new marketing approach. I thought that might have been fun to do. But most people do the minimum. So ‘Let’s take a gymnast and put him or her in this mold that we have built for Mary Lou Retton. Let’s put a swimmer in the same mold we had for Janet Evans.’ I still tried to get beyond my disappointments.
In addition, modern pentathlon, invented to test the skill of a 19th century military courier riding behind enemy lines, was a risky business. Taormina was thrown by the horse and severely bruised when an errant epee of a training partner found its way into her rib between layers of her protective padding.
Sheila: It didn't penetrate the skin. It was more a blunt trauma injury that left a lot of bruising. I thought I broke my rib, but it actually was just a traumatic tissue injury. Which was really painful. The horses very potentially dangerous and often unpredictable because you always rode the ones that were offered in the draw at the competition. Even if they were good, you still had to tell the horse what to do.
I didn’t have any bad falls until three weeks before the Olympics. I got bucked from a horse. He was a four foot jumper, the only 4-foot jumper in the barn in Michigan where I trained. I never rode him before but the owner was gone and after a week away he asked for someone to ride him. This horse had so much energy, we should have lunged him. That’s something they do when the horse hasn’t been ridden lately and have a lot of energy. You put them on a giant leash called a lunge line, then you let them buck and kick. But we didn’t do that. So the horse and I did a little light warm-up jump. He was really sweet. Then the coach started raising the jump. We went over a little bit bigger jump and the horse just felt so good, he decided ‘That was great!’ Then he came down! Bam! Just out of the blue he surprised me and gave the biggest buck and kick. I was up in the air and I remember thinking How can I land where I’m not gonna kill myself? SHE LAUGHS I twisted in the air and came down on one foot. I whiplashed so hard. But I wasn't injured. I credit my basic athleticism. I have been very fortunate even as a kid, I could always control my body in the air and how I wanted to land.
Everyone in equestrian riding is aware of the dangers. Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, was paralyzed when he fell off a horse in 1995.
Sheila: I always had respectful fear of riding. I knew how hurt you could be. Just like cycling. But I was a little more fearful of riding because those are so unpredictable.
After her great start in modern pentathlon, Taormina leveled off in her results, when a bad fencing, shooting or riding day could wreck her scores. Still, her coach Janusz Peciak, a modern pentathlon gold medalist in his prime, thought if all the stars were in alignment, Taormina was one of 10 competitors who might win gold. But in her first round in Beijing, Taormina could not believe how badly she did. It was another test of her values and character.
Sheila: If you had told me Sheila you will do this poorly in the fencing, I would have said ‘No, I could do poorly but not that poorly. That’s impossible.’ That is why I believe that there is something greater than me at work. I take what God’s given me and I work the best with that.
After her disastrous fencing round in Beijing, she had only four victories of 31 and that put her out of medal hope and dead last. Then her sister Sudee gave her some inspiration..
Sheila:I was ready to walk off the strip halfway through the fencing bouts. I went up to my sister Sudee and said, ‘I can't take it, I can't take it.' But she pulled out of our hug and looked at me. She said ‘You will not want. You will not want.' No other phrase would have meant anything to me. Janusz Peciak, modern pentathlon coach. I love that man. I love him to my dying day. But if he had said “Keep fighting!” or “Don’t give up,” those words would have just bounced off of me. But my sister’s words were the truth and they just melted into me. When I heard her, I wanted to hug her and get out there again. I was so embarrassed about the way I was feeling. I said, ‘You're right. I take whatever's given." What she said took away my ego. And that's one thing in sports I do not like. I have never liked it when I've seen ego in other athletes. If I ever caught myself letting my ego rule, I don’t like that in myself at all. That was the only reason I was embarrassed during that fencing in Beijing. Ego.”
Sudee’s choice of words might also have resonated because they have a prominent place in the 23rd Psalm, which begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness’ Might this have been a more important lesson in her life than getting a medal? After that opening shock, Taormina went on to set a modern pentathlon record Olympic record in the 200 meter swim and was one of four competitors to post a perfect score in the equestrian. After a decent run, she finished 19th overall – one spot ahead of the defending Olympic champion. With the usual American preoccupation with winners, only a few people appreciated just where Sheila Taormina was coming from.
Sheila: Yeah my journey was so much more than a finishing place. You can sit there and not even get a handshake from certain people who value only results. I don’t want people to say ‘You are the most amazing athlete.’ I don’t like that. I just wished that they understood the spirit of what I did. That they get what the mission was. And my sister Sudee has always known who I had been as an athlete. And the battle I've had with the battle of ego versus spirit. I want to win and have had my share of great days. But it’s really about the human spirit.
Sheila Taormina was thoughtful just before the USAT Hall of Fame dinner. When asked what was her favorite moment in triathlon, she didn’t cite her World title, nor her two Olympics. The answer tells much about what she feels about the sport.
Sheila: The feelings of an Olympian winning a gold medal are no different than an age grouper feeling happy for finishing a sprint triathlon. Being happy is being happy. I don’t care what the reason yer happy is. But that feeling is the same. The neatest thing I ever saw was at Alcatraz triathlon. We had already gotten our paychecks.
We had finished two hours before and I was headed out of transition to go to pack and catch a redeye flight home that night. I was walking past the finish chute, about 200 meters long, and when the pros and early finishers come through, it is packed with people screaming and cheering. Then here comes this woman, who is a little heavyset, coming around the corner. There is not a soul standing along the fence cheering. But I am walking, I see her coming, and notice that she is looking at the clock. I turn around and it shows about 20-25 seconds to get under the four hour mark. Or maybe it was four and a half hours. So when she saw it, she just went into this all out sprint. I put my bike on the grass and I started yelling 'Go!' And then I started crying. That is actually my favorite moment of all in triathlon. I’ll never forget it. Her eyes locking into that clock and thinking: ‘I’m going to get in there. For me. I’m just about dead last. No one is watching me. No one cares. But I’m gonna do it for me.’ That's triathlon. And so that's a beautiful thing.
Sheila Taormina insists that the Olympic modern pentathlon was the finish for her elite sporting career. At age 39, she has embarked on a new business. With a little bit of advice and help from Lew Kidder and Karen McKeachie, she has already begun putting on an all-women’s triathlon in Southeastern Michigan, and a fun one called He Said, She Said matching men and women teams in seven different categories such as Husband-Wife, Mother-Son, Father-Daughter. “We let the people who want to race hard, race hard,” she explains. “But the main idea is to keep it fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a riot, actually.”