Taormina's historic day tests strength, resolve
Sheila Taormina is the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports. She competed in swimming in 1996 and triathlon in 2000 and 2004. Now she's back for the modern pentathlon, a daylong test of skill and endurance that includes shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian and running. The Associated Press chronicles Taormina's history-making day, event by event.
Sheila Taormina is finally here. Less than four years after taking up this complex, grueling sport, the Michigan native is lining up with 35 other modern pentathletes at the Beijing Olympics.
Shooting is the first event, but rather than shuttling out to the Olympic range, the athletes fire their pistols inside the centrally located fencing hall. By night's end, they'll be running for gold in a large outdoor stadium.
Positioned between Leila Gyenesei of Hungary and Donata Rimsaite of Lithuania - and noticeably shorter than both - Taormina struggles toward the end of her 20-shot session. She finishes in 28th place, but Taormina is upbeat when she comes over to chat with family before changing into her fencing gear.
"I started out with my two worst events," she says. "Survived the first one. Hopefully I'll survive the second one."
Taormina's twin brother Steven made the trip to Beijing.
"Seven minutes older," he boasts. "That's why she's so competitive."
If Taormina can hold her own in shooting, fencing and equestrian, she'll be able to use the swim and run to make up valuable ground. After all, she won gold as part of a swim relay in 1996, and her running ability helped her become one of the world's top triathletes.
"As kids, we swam from the time we were 2 years old," Steven says. "Never rode horses, never shot, never fenced."
Next up for Taormina: 35 epee fencing bouts - one against each of her competitors. It's not as absurd as it sounds. The first person to score a touch wins each bout, and none of them take very long.
For Taormina, though, this stage can't end soon enough. Over halfway through, she's won 2 of 19 bouts.
Fencing is becoming a nightmare, and at one point, Taormina appears upset. She walks over to hug a supporter.
Moments later, she's all the way up in the grandstand, spending a few seconds with family.
"Having you guys here makes it all right," she says. "Just keep smiling."
In recent years, Taormina has fought depression, endured a protracted legal battle against a stalker and had to sell her house to help pay for her new sport. Now she seems to be savoring every moment with family members in Beijing.
Taormina returns to the fencing strip. Margaux Isaksen, another American, is faring a bit better. At 16, Isaksen is 23 years younger than Taormina. Together they form a unique, friendly team, high fiving each other after bouts.
Taormina finishes with only four fencing wins - three fewer than any other athlete - and drops to last place overall in the modern pentathlon.
The scene shifts to Yingdong Natatorium, and it's time for swimming - the sport that first brought Taormina to the Olympics. If she's going to make a move up the standings, it better start now with the 200-meter freestyle.
Taormina is in her element, quickly moving to the lead at the start of her heat and then extending the margin. After looking overmatched on the fencing strip, she's in a class by herself here.
She finishes in 2 minutes, 8.86 seconds - more than two seconds faster than anybody else. Then comes the bad news: She only moved up to 32nd place overall. It's a harsh reminder of how versatile modern pentathletes have to be - one great event isn't enough.
For Steven Taormina, this is a rare chance to watch her compete in person. Earlier this year, while attempting to qualify for Beijing, Taormina toured the world, competing in World Cups in countries like Egypt, Mexico and Spain.
"She is all over the place, so obviously we don't get to go there and cheer her on," Steven says. "It means the world to her - does to us too - to be able to support her."
She's accompanied in China by parents, two brothers and a sister.
Luck plays a role in any Olympic sport, but few athletes in Beijing deal with random chance more than modern pentathletes. It's time for the equestrian stage, when competitors are assigned horses and try to ride them over obstacles. The last two stages of the modern pentathlon are in a stadium next to Yingdong Natatorium.
If an animal is being particularly uncooperative, there's not much a modern pentathlete can do. Egypt's Omnia Fakhry loses quite a few points riding. Her horse, Naonao, repeatedly stops short and veers left before obstacles, at one point nearly tossing Fakhry over the barrier instead.
Taormina is aboard Liangliang, wearing a sharp red riding coat - yes, these are the same athletes who were in the pool earlier this afternoon. Taormina and Liangliang clear each hurdle without a penalty point. It's one of only three perfect rides on the day.
When it's over, Taormina reaches down and pats Liangliang with her right hand.
"I was real happy for her," says Sam Sacksen, another American modern pentathlete. "Her day hasn't been the greatest so far. It's always good to get at least one real positive out of the day."
Taormina has the fastest swim and tied for the best horse ride. She's still only 28th in the overall standings, but she can salvage a decent finish with a strong run.
Taormina was one of the last athletes to go through the equestrian course, and she'll be one of the last to start the run. That's because starts are staggered for the 3,000-meter race that concludes the modern pentathlon.
Lena Schoneborn of Germany is the overall points leader with 4,584. She'll start the run first. Heather Fell of Britain is second, 76 points behind. She'll start the run 19 seconds after Schoneborn, and so on ...
The first person to cross the finish line wins the modern pentathlon. Taormina will start 2:05 behind the leader and try to pass as many runners as she can.
When she's finally allowed to run, Taormina passes two competitors in about 80 seconds. Athletes run three laps through a curvy, narrow course set up on a track. Around the end of the second lap, Taormina passes Galina Dolgushina of Kazakhstan, who started the run in 14th place.
Moments later, Taormina passes Isaksen.
Schoneborn wins gold. Taormina ends up 19th, one spot ahead of Hungary's Zsuzsanna Voros, the defending gold medalist. Isaksen finishes 21st.
"I'm not going to lie. It was tough throughout the day. Sheila and I both are ready to pack up and go home," Isaksen says. "But I couldn't have asked to be here with a better teammate. It was an honor to be here with her."
Taormina is pleased with her run - and talks emotionally about her toughest moment of the day.
"I was ready to walk off the strip halfway through the fencing bouts," she says. "My sister Sudee - halfway through it I went up to her and I said, 'I can't take it, I can't take it.' And she said the most wise words anyone could have ever said.
"She said, 'You cannot want. You cannot want.' And she just looked at me, and I said, 'You're right. I take whatever's given."
A day that began with despair - and a pursuit that included so much anguish - ends with Taormina's head high.
"So worth it now," Taormina says. "I'm just thanking God over and over and over. So thankful I want to cry."