Friday, June 6, 2008
From time to time, I will clip an interesting item on a 2008 Olympian. This one, is from one hell of a writer, Amy Shipley of the Washington Post. Here are their stories:
She's a Good Sport
An Olympic Team Member in 3 of Them, Taormina Tackles Modern Pentathlon
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008; E01
Every Olympics brings a new cast of athletes, dramatic quests and occasionally unusual sports into the consciousness of interested Americans, but rarely -- or, perhaps, never -- has the obscure pastime known as modern pentathlon kept anyone beyond relatives of participants clamoring for updates.
That could change this summer.
The moment the U.S. Olympic Committee announced Sunday night that Sheila Taormina had earned a place on the modern pentathlon team, becoming the first person to qualify for the Olympics in three sports, modern pentathlon suddenly mattered. By summer's end, the average American might be able to recite confidently the five component sports of the endeavor -- fencing, shooting, swimming, show jumping and running.
Taormina, who competed in swimming at the 1996 Summer Games and triathlon in 2000 and 2004, brings a drama-laden story to a sport considered so arcane and irrelevant that the International Olympic Committee executive board proposed six years ago that it be thrown off the Olympic program. Three years later, the San Antonio-based organization that oversaw modern pentathlon's development for more than 50 years in the United States folded.
To Taormina, however, the sport's five rungs represented a perfect next step for a woman who had already transitioned successfully from a gold medal performance in swimming as a member of the 4x200 relay team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, to the triathlon, which involves swimming, running and cycling. Taormina finished sixth in the event in Sydney in 2000 and a disappointing 23rd in Athens four years later.
"I know I have the potential to win," Taormina said recently. "I also know I have the potential to be a complete fool and screw up royally. I'm a really fun wild card. . . . Of course, I really want to win. And I can win."
Never mind that, as of four years ago, she had never held a gun, ridden anything other than a kiddie pony or picked up a fencing epee. She had to learn to fire an air pistol with accuracy, maneuver unfamiliar horses around show jumping courses (modern pentathletes draw random horses for competitions) and become competent enough with an epee to win at least half of her matches if she hoped to remain in medal contention.
"People just said, 'There is no way you can do this; it's not possible,' " said her longtime triathlon coach, Lew Kidder. "No one has ever even tried this . . . [but] she was determined she was going to push that rock up the hill."
The energy she put into the new endeavors left her little time to hone her areas of expertise; she saw her times drop in swimming and running. Besides all that, Taormina ran into unexpected and stomach-churning problems: How would she pay for all this training, and what if she failed to make the team? Where, she wondered as she began to have international success just over two years ago, were all of the sponsors that seemed eager to support mainstream swimmers and increasingly popular triathletes?
The financial rewards to date, she said, have been virtually zilch. She had to sell her house two years ago simply to remain financially afloat. She skipped this past weekend's world championships in Budapest, because she had been asked to give a speech by a group in Indianapolis and she needed the cash.
Modern pentathlon, she said, has produced something in abundance that she rarely encountered during her other Olympic journeys: tears.
"Pentathlon," she said, "has made me cry."
She, however, has had the opposite effect on the sport.
"The media attention for our sport [because of Taormina's presence] not only in North America but also worldwide will, I think, be enormous," Angela Ives, president of the Canadian Modern Pentathlon Association said in an e-mail from Budapest. "Pentathlon generally gets very little media attention on this continent. . . . I haven't known Sheila long but have been very impressed by her -- not only as an athlete but also as a person."
Said USOC chief executive Jim Scherr in a statement: "Qualifying for the Olympic Games in one sport is difficult enough. But to do so in three sports -- and be internationally competitive in all three -- is a remarkable accomplishment."
In what will be an almost comic pairing during the lead-up to the Games, Taormina will be hanging out with teammate Margaux Isaksen, who at 16 will be one of the U.S. squad's youngest members. At 39, Taormina will be one of the oldest. Taormina noted that her brother joked that the pentathlon team is full of hormones, with one woman going through menopause and the other puberty.
"I'm tired and old and cranky, and she's all bright and bubbly," Taormina said. "Her mother's more my age. She is my age, actually."
(Isaksen's mother, Kathleen West, said that wasn't quite accurate but declined to reveal the extent to which Taormina had erred.)
NBC Universal spokesman Mike McCarley said the network planned more coverage of modern pentathlon than previously, with the entire competition streamed live for the first time on nbcolympics.com and at least one hour shown on cable television (the same as in 2004). The network, he noted, would respond to exceptional stories as they evolve during the Games, meaning Taormina could end up as part of the prime-time broadcast depending on how her medal quest unfolded.
That, of course, remains a big question. She said her body moves more slowly than it used to. Her muscles are tighter. She underwent her first surgery a few months ago. She said the idea that she would continue competing after these Games is laughable.
But in just three years she became the top-ranked U.S. woman in her sport.
Ranked ninth overall in the World Cup standings this spring after competitions in Cairo; Mexico City; Millfield, England; Madrid; and Kladno, Czech Republic, Taormina offers intriguing possibilities. With her strong background in swimming and running, she is always a candidate to land on a medal stand. But with her inexperience in shooting, fencing and, in particular show jumping, she is also a candidate to land, literally, on her derriere. At the World Cup in Madrid, a horrific ride on an uncooperative horse left her with zero points in the equestrian segment of competition.
"I will not put that pressure on myself," Taormina said about winning a medal. "There's been too much pressure to make the team. . . . [I hope people say] she had enough guts to go for this and put herself on the line."