When you think of the greatest female athletes of all-time, names like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Martina Navratilova automatically come to mind. While she may not be in that same hallowed company, Sheila Taormina (BBA '92, MBA '94) recently proved her extreme versatility by being named to the U.S. Olympic team in a third different sport — something no female athlete from any country has ever achieved in the history of the Olympic Games.
When the 2008 Beijing Games begin this August, Taormina will be competing for the U.S. in modern pentathlon — a grueling 5-sport event that involves shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding, and running. The swimming part is easy for Taormina, a former UGA All-American who won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The running phase is second nature, too, given that Taormina made both the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams in triathlon (swimming, running, cycling). But to understand the magnitude of Taormina's latest achievements in the modern pentathlon, you have to realize that as recently as 2005 she had never picked up a foil, never fired a gun, never even ridden a horse. And now she's one of the best pentathletes in the world.
Asked to analyze her chances in Beijing, Taormina says, "I am a wild card, and that is what makes this fun. I hope people understand that the spirit of it was in not knowing if it was possible."
As readers of Terry Magazine learned in a cover story on Taormina in the summer 2007 issue, making it to Beijing was complicated by the loss of several sponsors who assumed she was finished with her athletic career after finishing sixth and 23rd in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic triathlon competitions. To make ends meet, she sold her house. When she was initially turned down for training privileges at the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, she persevered and eventually was accepted. But the daunting task that remained was mastering fencing, shooting, and riding when she was starting from scratch.
"There is a chance I can podium in Beijing...and a chance I will be last!" says the self-effacing Taormina, who also maintains a motivational speaker business headquartered in her hometown of Livonia, Mich., in suburban Detroit. "I made the Olympic team in a tie-breaker that was based on five world cup competitions in Cairo, Mexico City, England, Madrid, and the Czech Republic. My message is that I did not give up because I believed that there may be a blessing at the end."
The modern pentathlon begins with competitors firing 20 shots from 10 meters with a 4.5-millimeter air pistol. The fencing bouts are pressure-packed, one-minute competitions with the first hit determining the winner. A 200-meter freestyle swim comes next followed by a horseback riding event with 15 jumps that reach a maximum of four feet. A 3-kilometer cross country run pitting men and women against each other closes the competition.
Taormina won the U.S. team tie-breaker at the tender age of 39; the girl who finished second is 16. But breaking paradigms is what Taormina is all about.
"In the pentathlon, you have to be a good actor to go from being very quiet to being very physical. Because of that it may be the most complete sport," says Taormina's coach, Janusz Peciak. "In the region I come from [in Poland], the winner is considered the king or queen of the Olympics."