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Taormina's journey goes beyond going for broke

CHICAGO — History is waiting on Sheila Taormina.

Waiting for her to do something that has never been done.

She just has a few details to work out.

Her new sport, for instance. The modern pentathlon is a unique discipline involving shooting, fencing, running, swimming and riding. As of a few years ago, Taormina had never held a gun. Or a sword. Or ridden a horse.

Details.

Her age, for instance. At 39, she is a bit older than most Olympians. Old enough, in fact, that she could be the mother of the 16-year-old teammate who has been her roommate on road trips.

Details.

Her finances, for instance. Turns out, riding, shooting and fencing lessons are expensive. And pentathletes, shockingly, are not the first choice of cash-happy sponsors. So, in 2006, Taormina sold her home outside of Orlando to fund this quest.

Details, details, details.

The point is, Taormina is a few weeks from officially making the pentathlon team and becoming the first U.S. athlete to qualify for the Summer Games in three different sports.

"I know if I make the team, I have the potential to win gold," Taormina said at the U.S. Olympic media summit. "I also have the potential to look like a complete fool.

"I'm a wild card. A really fun wild card. When people look at me, I'd like them to say she was brave enough to give it a try. She put it on the line."

It's not the first time. For most of her life, Taormina has been chasing one dream or another. She first went to the Olympic swimming trials as a teenager in 1988 and failed to qualify. She came up short again in '92.

Taormina (pronounced TAR-meena) finally made her first Olympic team as a 27-year-old in 1996 and won a gold medal as a member of a swimming relay team. She retired briefly, but popped up again in 2000 as a triathlete and finished sixth in Sydney. She returned for the triathlon in Athens and finished 23rd.

At that point, the sensible thing was to move on. To take pride in a long and varied career, and begin transitioning to life outside of athletics.

But something continued to nag at her. She had run into a pentathlete in a USOC swimming pool before the '04 Games, and he jokingly asked when she was going to become the first three-sport Olympian.

So Taormina flirted with cross-country skiing in 2005 before deciding to try the pentathlon.

She essentially gave herself two years to become a world class competitor in skills that were completely foreign to her. She was spending $50,000-$60,000 a year in lessons alone.

Taormina had assumed sponsors would be intrigued by such a unique journey, but no one was interested. She couldn't even find an agent to help her look.

"It's been mentally exhausting. I've been on the edge. This probably hasn't been a mentally healthy endeavor," Taormina said. "My family was telling me, 'Please, please, don't do this,' because of the stress and humiliation. I was going to World Cup meets within months of starting the sport and I would lose and lose. I would fall off the horse. It was tough to take after you win a gold medal in one sport, and win a world championship in another sport. I was getting humiliated time and time again, and going broke financially."

You would have to know more of Taormina's story to understand how she got through this. Or maybe to understand how she almost did not.

Between the 2000 and '04 Games, Taormina lived in her native Detroit and made ends meet as a private swimming instructor. A would-be client turned into a stalker and, for more than a year, Taormina dealt with unwanted advances that escalated into frightening threats.

She moved to Clermont, outside of Orlando, to escape the harassment. Her stalker was eventually sentenced to 40 to 60 months in prison and served five years before being released in January. He's had no contact with Taormina, but that doesn't mean his impact is gone.

"It affected me. I lost a lot of my joy, a lot of my naivete," she said. "It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing to say I considered going on anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants. But the more you talk about it with people, the more you realize how many people deal with anxieties. It's so common. Just being a human being is not easy. So I've learned not to be embarrassed. And at least I can share my story with others, so they know they're not alone."

As for Taormina, she is on the verge of being alone in history. She has one more World Cup event in early May and, barring a major flop, is expected to be named to the Olympic team.

It is what has gotten her past near financial ruin. It has gotten her past anxiety. It has gotten her past too many weeks of training for 60 hours to catch up on untapped skills.

Once she had a chance to make history, Taormina said she could not let the opportunity pass. She could not stand the thought of looking back one day in regret.

So does that mean there is a fourth sport in her future in 2012?

"No, I won't have any problem retiring this time," she said. "I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I'd bet my life savings."

And she already has done that once before.

>>FAST FACTS

Olympics

2008 Summer Games; Aug. 8-24, Beijing

Taormina's journey goes beyond going for broke 04/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 7:54am]
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