BEIJING – Sheila Taormina has battled depression, narrowly averted bankruptcy and stared down a stalker across a courtroom as part of her journey into history.
Her biggest challenge, though, may lie in the weeks and months following Beijing, as she fights the biggest addiction in her life.
The Olympic Games.
Taormina, 39, is a serial Olympian who will become the first woman ever to compete in three different sports at the Games when she lines up in the modern pentathlon Friday.
It is a grueling one-day event which begins early in the morning with shooting and also includes swimming, fencing and show-jumping before finishing with a 3,000-meter run.
It is a brutal way to spend a day, a tortuous test of body and mind. And maybe, just maybe, when it is all over, it will finally be enough for Taormina.
It was not enough to win gold in Atlanta in the 4x200-meter swimming relay. Nor was it enough to compete successfully as a professional triathlete, finishing sixth in Sydney and 23rd in Athens.
The Michigan native and University of Georgia graduate wanted more. Only, she wanted to go where no woman had gone before.
Taormina’s first idea was to become a cross-country skier and try to qualify for the Winter Olympics.
However, solitary training was not only punishing, it was also dangerous. Taormina feared being stranded in lonely terrain, especially after spotting bear tracks in the woods during one long-distance session.
Then came the suggestion of modern pentathlon, a sport which has often recruited accomplished swimmers and runners in the past. Many have failed, unable to master the skill elements of shooting, fencing and equestrian to an appropriate level.
Taormina can now afford to look back and laugh at the days when she would regularly tumble from her horse, or grasp the fencing saber with two hands or fail to hit any part of the target with her shotgun.
Through incredible dedication she has conquered age, logic and the doubters who closed doors in her face just when she most needed support.
“Someone like Michael Phelps is blessed with incredible physical gifts,” Taormina said. “I am not that way, but I feel like what I was blessed with was determination.
“I was surprised that when I got into this, sponsors didn’t get behind the idea and come on board. It was difficult when it felt I was the only one who really believed in this, but gradually people started to realize it could be done.”
Taormina’s athletic accomplishments are remarkable enough. But put in the context of the personal torments she has had to endure while chasing another Olympic dream, they are extraordinary.
The prize money and sponsorships she had accrued as a triathlete were soon swallowed up by coaching fees in the areas she desperately needed work: shooting, fencing and horse riding.
“I was only a month or so away from defaulting on my mortgage,” she said. “That was very stressful, and I had to decide how badly I wanted this. I decided to sell my house, but that was when the market started to drop and I had to take $40,000 less than what it would normally have been appraised at.”
During her career in triathlon she also received threatening calls and text messages from a stalker who was eventually jailed. Sometimes, the man followed her on training bike rides.
“It wasn’t until later that I realized how much that affected me,” she said. “I just didn’t enjoy people so much any more. I didn’t feel I could trust them so much.”
Life in the Athletes’ Village has been slightly surreal for Taormina, who rooms with Margaux Isaksen, a 16-year-old fellow modern pentathlete.
“She is young, tall, blonde and beautiful,” said Taormina. “I am short, dark, cranky and bitter.
“I joke with (41-year-old swimmer) Dara Torres that it is nice to have her around, just because we are the only two who remember what the ’80s was like.”
Taormina has already delivered some motivational speeches and plans to do more in retirement. Listening to her news conference earlier this week, it was impossible not to be moved by this inspirational woman and her extraordinary story.
Taormina is still working out whether her obsession is something to beat or something to embrace, but either way it’s unlikely we will see her again at the Olympics.
Unless she finds something new.