Wednesday, August 24, 2011


4-time, Olympian Sheila Taormina takes her dreams, and those of others seriously
Sheila Taormina (pronounced ‘Tar-meena’) is an Olympic athlete who has competed at four consecutive Olympic Games (1996-2008). She is also the only woman to compete in three different Olympic sports. At the 1996 Olympics, she earned a gold medal as a member of the USA's winning women's 4X200m freestyle relay team, and was a triathlon world champion.

At just over 5'3" tall, and not having made her first Olympic team until the age of 27, Sheila Taormina appears to be an unlikely candidate to have competed at four consecutive summer Olympiads in three completely different sports. However, she did all that and earned stunning accolades, and more.

After winning a gold medal for the 4X200m swimming relay in the Olympic Games of Atlanta in 1996, Sheila then, purposefully, plunged into the cloudy waters of two other entirely different sports: Olympic Distance triathlon, and Modern Pentathlon. Sheila has enjoyed many sporting successes in her life. Her glowing resume includes:

The only woman to compete in three different sports in different Olympiads
USAT Lifetime Hall of Fame
2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, Modern Pentathlon, 19th place overall (1st place in two of the five events: swimming (Pentathlon World record) and equestrian show jumping)
2004 Olympic Games, Athens, Triathlon, 23rd place
2004 ITU World Champion, Triathlon
2000 Olympic Games, Sydney, Triathlon, 6th place
1996 Olympic Games, Atlanta, Swimming, Gold medal in the 4X200 metres freestyle relay

David Greenfield, founder of Elite Bicycles, USA describes her: ‘All in all, I personally feel that Sheila Taormina is not only one of the greatest athletes of our century, she is also one of the greatest personalities and persons I have been fortunate enough to meet. I have great pride and am honored to have Sheila as an ambassador for Elite Bicycles; however I value the ability to call her my friend even more.  She is truly an inspiration, and a model of hard work, determination, and selfless Christian values.’
The Modern Pentathlon is a one-day event that comprises five disciplines: pistol shooting, show jumping, epee fencing, 200-metre freestyle swimming and 3K cross-country run. Sheila described them as the skills required for the horseback courier delivering the mail safely. She had to learn three completely unfamiliar disciplines within three years. However, dealing with the new was familiar territory for Sheila who successfully rode to a USA National championship title and a top-ten finish in the Sydney Olympics, a mere 18 months after she entered the sport of professional triathlon.

Sheila also expanded her resume to include author as another achievement. ‘Call the Suit’ is a comprehensive training manual that studies and creates diagnostic information about swimming. In her book, Sheila explains and describes all of the facets that create propulsion, feel for the water, and the critical components of a proper freestyle swim stroke that is utilized by the fastest swimmers in the world. In effect, the more efficient a swimmer is the less energy they use, thus allowing for greater strength and endurance for the two subsequent events that follow a triathlon. Several mantras pervade the book, including ‘Look at the hand you have been dealt’, ‘Be Bold’, and ‘Make the choice that is best for you, and who you are’.

In addition to promoting her best-selling, self-help book on proper swim technique, Sheila continues to conduct swimming clinics worldwide. She also continues her work as a highly acclaimed motivational speaker for schools, businesses, and community organizations. Sheila also volunteers actively and extensively within her community and has partnered with two national non-profit organizations to support their missions.

We caught up with the busy speaker, author and coach for an honest and introspective interview. Throughout the interview, you may intuitively detect her infectious energy and enthusiasm for life, and how it has positively translated to her speaking engagements, and competitive years as a renowned athlete and champion.

Sheila Taormina will be in Singapore in October for swim clinics and speaking engagements. As part of Sheila’s world tour on swim coaching, Singapore-based Elite Custom Bicycles will bring her in for a limited engagement. The premier customized-fitting and handcrafted bicycle company, Elite Bicycles, USA is a lifetime-sponsor for Sheila.

Enrico Varella: How does winning an Olympic gold medal change your life?

Sheila Taormina: Not much to be honest. I joke with people that when I returned home from the Olympics with a gold medal in my pocket no one was on my front door step offering to mow the lawn or do the dishes for me. Life is life [laughs]. Actually, what it does do to change life is to offer a few additional opportunities to make a difference in other people's lives. That is the fun part - to share what I have learned from great coaches and team-mates.

EV: Which was the proudest moment of your career?

ST: Never a proud moment; I only have thankful moments because it is amazing to me that I grew up in a family that supported my sports dreams, and that I lived during a time when women could take a sports career to great places. I did nothing to earn those things on my own. I am also thankful that my body stayed healthy for so many years. The most memorable moments of my sports career definitely include the Olympic gold medal day in swimming, the world championship win in triathlon, and winning the equestrian show jumping portion of the pentathlon in Beijing.
EV: Which is one thing we tend to overdo as an athlete?

ST: Many athletes definitely over-train. Athletes should remember that a happy athlete is a fast athlete. We need rest to be a happy person and also for our physical body to adapt to the hard work we do. Also, I think many athletes over-train the aerobic/endurance side of training and under-train the speed work and lactate (race pace) sets. The speed workouts are much shorter in length, but the intensity is very high. Athletes should enjoy doing a short intense workout and then this gives more time at home at the end of the day to enjoy things away from sport, especially spending time with the people we love. Do at least 2 days per week of short intense workouts.

EV: Which is the one thing we tend to overlook as an athlete?

ST: I think we overlook the big picture, sometimes. We think that every race should go perfectly, and the truth of the matter is that we are human and not every race goes how we want it to go. When those days happen we should remember to look at the big picture, that we have healthy bodies and the opportunity to be on the start line in the first, laugh, and be thankful.

EV: How important were coaches to you?

ST: My coaches were a massive part of my success as an athlete and they were the reason why I stayed in sport so many years. They kept it fun. They taught me life-long lessons and prepared my body to reach its full potential, which meant days of training that were super-hard and also days of training with rest. They were very smart about how to design the overall plan. I would have never made it to the Olympics if I did not have the coaches I had.

EV: How did you decide to switch, successfully, from swimming to triathlons to modern pentathlon?

ST: It was never a life plan to switch to triathlon and then to pentathlon. I thought I would be finished with sport forever after swimming in the 1996 Olympics. What happened was that I did zero exercise for two years after '96, and I got out of shape. I entered a local triathlon in 1998 just to get back in some sort of shape, and a gentleman who saw me race said he saw potential. He convinced me to take triathlon more seriously, and he taught me enough to make the Olympic team two years later in 2000, and then again in 2004. For the modern pentathlon, a representative from that sport recruited me, and he brought to my attention that no woman had ever made an Olympics in three completely different sports before. That piqued my interest. It was a unique opportunity I saw and at that moment, I felt healthy enough to continue competing, so I decided to give pentathlon a try to see if I could make Olympic history.

EV: Of your three competitive sports, which was the toughest discipline for you?

ST: I learned that every sport is equally difficult, but in different ways. For instance, shooting is not as physically exhausting as swimming a 200-meter freestyle, but shooting presents an equally difficult challenge in that the athlete must learn to stay composed mentally when a big prize is on the line. It is very challenging. Every sport was just as difficult as the others. I appreciate what athletes have to master in all disciplines.

EV: After competing successfully in three crossover sports, which is your favourite sport?

ST: My favorite sport ends up being the equestrian show jumping. My spirit soars when I am on a brave horse flying over the jumps! I like cornering really fast on the bike too, though, so cycling on a technical course ranks high on my list of favorite things to do in sport.
EV: What is the ‘difference that makes the difference’ for a world-class athlete? What separates a national-ranked athlete from an Olympic medalist?

ST: Great questions you opinion on this question is that the last 10% of athletic preparation is what separates the world-class athlete from the almost-world class athlete. That last 10% entails the ability to push oneself to levels most people cannot access, and this has a mental component and grit component, not just during a race but also on a day-to-day basis in training. A top athlete knows how a weakness can reside in sneaky places, and he/she is willing to tap deep into those places everyday in training so the weakness can be stamped out.  
(We continue with Part 2 tomorrow)


Tobias F said...

Enrico, that's a great interview with an even greater athlete!
I first heard about Sheila at the Beijing Olympics and was amazed of her sports career.Here, she has such a balanced and down-to-earth view on sports that is likely the reason for her having that extra 10%.
I'd volunteer to mow her lawn (though not for life ;) when in the States again, as she is a truly inspiring person.

Enrico Varella said...

Thank you, Tobias for your feedback. I truly appreciate it. I agree, Sheila is a inspirational and very nice person. Do you know that she carries her gold medal with her, so that children and adults can build dreams around it?
I am looking forward to attending her swim clinics in October. Perhaps, we can meet her then, Tobias?
BTW, Readers - Tobias Frenz was featured in our interview last year under 'Conversations with Achievers'. He is one of our inspiring, amateur, elite age-groupers. Enjoy his interview, too!

Tobias F said...

Would love to meet her Enrico, but unfortunately busy here in Kuala Lumpur. Would badly need advice on my freestyle stroke, am so lousy at it!
Anyway, ask her to tackle the English Channel, that would give me even more inspiration...

john cooke said...

Great Interview Enrico.May need to get the book .My swimming needs help.

Mike Lim said...

Great interview Enrico! BTW do you have details about her October clinic in Singapore? Thanks. Mike Lim

Enrico Varella said...

Yes, I do, Mike. She will be here from 18-24 October. Elite Custom Bicycles will be bringing her in - call them direct. More details will follow. Stay tuned. Thanks for your feedback.