BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — Sheila Taormina is big on technique.
Big on commitment, too.
Those two qualities helped Taormina, who will speak in Traverse City on Friday, become the only woman to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports.
"She's 5-foot-2 of iron will," said Traverse City's Kathy Coffin-Sheard, who helped recruit Taormina to the University of Georgia. "That's the amazing thing about her."
Taormina, a Livonia Stevenson graduate, won a gold medal in swimming in the 1996 Games. She made the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams as a triathlete, finishing sixth in 2000. In 2008, she qualified in the modern pentathlon.
Taormina will talk to the Grand Traverse masters swim team from 7-9 p.m. Friday at the Inside Out Gallery. The public is invited. There will be a $10 donation at the door.
The masters swim group is comprised of nearly 50 community members between the ages of 25 and 75. Most are over 40 and are working professionals. Some compete in swimming events, triathlons and ironmans.
Taormina was a swimmer at the University of Georgia. She later took up running and cycling to become a triathlete, then learned pistol shooting, horseback riding and fencing to become a pentathlete.
"I'm big on technique," she said Friday en route to a swim clinic in Albuquerque, N.M. "Details do matter. Anyone can show up. There are hundreds of thousands of kids showing up to practice. It's all about who has their minds in the game when they're there; who's really being attentive to what the coach is saying; who's able to focus, stroke after stroke, stride after stride, whatever sport you're in. Maintaining that focus for a long time, that's not easy."
Taormina said the message she and others delivered to students in New Mexico over the weekend went beyond physical conditioning and stroke technique.
"We're also teaching them about championship mentality — for those who are very competitive," she said. " Not everyone is wired to go out and conquer. Some are really doing it for reasons like health. But others want it bad. So we say, 'Okay, if you want it bad, here is where your mind has to be.
"The last 10 percent is what I call it. Getting to the 90 percent level takes a certain amount of energy. But that last 10 percent, that's where a lot of people quit. The last 10 percent is the hardest to attain."
Taormina said she didn't realize or reach her full potential until after her collegiate career at Georgia, even though she earned All-American honors there four years in a row.
"I didn't make my first Olympic team until I was 27," she said. "I had to learn. I wasn't mature enough to understand what it meant to give 100 percent and live to your full potential. I started to gain those skills at 23, 24, 25. That level of commitment is so deep. It's like this deep well where you keep digging deeper and deeper. I learned how to push to that level, and then literally the last two years — when I was 38, 39 — it was becoming unhealthy to push that hard. I had the willpower where I could have kept going. But it took its physical toll on an internal level. You have to be careful."
Taormina swam the 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley at Georgia.
"The 400 IM (which incorporates all four strokes — butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle) is hands-down the hardest event to swim," Coffin-Sheard said.
After finishing her collegiate eligibility, Taormina, an honor student, earned an MBA in 1994, then set her sights on the Olympics. But not in the 400 IM or 200 butterfly.
She focused on qualifying in the 4X200 freestyle relay.
"The U.S. team takes six spots in a relay, whereas in individual events, which were my forte, only two spots are available (per event)," she said. "It wasn't like I was a bad freestyle swimmer. I thought if I just concentrate on freestyle and really train for the 200 freestyle (leg) I've got three times the chance. Realistically, there were 25 women in this country that had a legitimate chance of making the Olympic team (for the relay). Out of those 25, six were going to get the spots. I got the sixth and final spot, but not by very much (a tenth of a second)."
Ironically, the 1996 Games were in nearby Atlanta.
Usually, swimmers who qualify fifth and sixth compete in the preliminary, giving a couple of the faster swimmers a breather for the finals. Taormina pulled a surprise.
"I improved my time from the Olympic Trials to the Olympics," she said. "I ended up having the best swim (time) in the morning (preliminary). My coach did a really good job of keeping it in perspective and not getting overly nervous. Some of the girls, I don't think, swam their best races that morning.
"As an athlete you rely on hitting it on the important days. There's a little bit of luck involved with that, keeping the pressure under control, staying healthy. All those things came together for me. I was thankful. I got to go back that night and swim for a gold medal."
It was not a slam dunk decision, though.
"There was a debate among the coaches about it," she said. "Even though I had the fastest relay split in the morning, I wasn't the most experienced of our girls at the international level. The Olympic team was my first big national team. So there was a debate that afternoon who they should put on. A couple coaches went to bat for me and said, 'She earned it.' About an hour or two before the team headed over for the finals, the coaches came to my room and said, 'You're on.'"
That night she won a gold medal.
Taormina took up triathlons in 1998. Just two years later, she was competing in the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. She made the team again in 2004, after winning the World Championships. To this day, that it is one of her all-time great thrills.
"You can never put winning a gold medal down too far on a list," she said. "But winning that world triathlon championship was pretty rewarding for me on a personal level — just the way it (race) panned out, it was on Mother's Day, it was for a spot on the Olympic team."
At 39, Taormina earned her fourth Olympic berth, this time in the modern pentathlon. She won the swimming and horse jumping part of the five-event competition, finishing 19th overall.
"It was fun," she said, reflecting on her career. "I never planned on doing all those different sports. It just happened. I was able to stay healthy and stay motivated. I love sports. I loved competing."
Coffin-Sheard thinks Taormina's story will be an inspiration to those attending Friday's event.
"I think that's what I want people to realize with Sheila — you can do anything you want to do," she said. "It doesn't mean you need to be the fastest, like she was. It's about setting goals, challenging yourself and learning new things."
Taormina has written several books on swimming. Her latest, Swim Speed Workouts, was just released.