Meet the women's U.S. Olympic Triathlon team

Triathlete Susan Bartholomew (left)congratulates fellow American Jennifer Gutierrez on qualifying for the 2000 Olympics.  Credit: Matt Turner/Allsport
Certain parties have characterized the U.S. Womens Olympic Triathlon Team as full of surprises (i.e. nobodies). Thats a stretch.

The fact that Barb Lindquist is not a member of the team is surprising, for sure. But the three women Jennifer Gutierrez, Sheila Taormina, and Joanna Zeiger who beat out Lindquist and the other top Americans in the split Trials (one spot was handed out in Sydney on April 14 and the other two in Dallas on May 27) to make the team had shown beforehand every indication of being capable of doing so, especially in recent months.

Granted, Taormina (pronounced tar-MEE-na) was not on anyone's list of contenders as recently as 1998, for she became a serious triathlete only last year. But those who took notice that she held the lead through the first leg of her very first World Cup triathlon (a lead she lost when the rookie accidentally donned another racers bike shoes in the transition area) knew she would be one to watch.

Zeiger and Gutierrez, meanwhile, are veteran world-class triathletes. Zeiger has taken second place in two consecutive U.S. Pro Championships, while Gutierrez was the top American finisher in both the Pan Am Games and the ITU World Championships last year. (Team alternate Siri Lindley, who finished third in the Dallas Trials, has five top-five World Cup finishes and the 1998 U.S. Pro Championship title on her competitive resume.)

This is not to say that the team could not have had a completely different composition had fate dealt another hand, in some small way.

For example, had the temperature in Dallas been just a few degrees cooler than 98 degrees for the Trials, Lindquist, who does not race well in the heat, might have maintained her lead straight through to the finish line instead of dropping out with heat exhaustion.

Or had Laura Reback, a younger talent who has finished as high as second in World Cup events, not battled shin splints all winter, she might have run stronger and finished higher than fourth in Dallas.

The point is, there are plenty of women who could have made the team. The pool of U.S. women triathletes is rife with talent.

There are 11 U.S. women among the top 50 triathletes in the current ITU world rankings, so chance was sure to play a role in determining who among them did and did not make the team.

Nevertheless, the group that was selected is arguably as strong as any alternative combination might have been, and the teams chances to win at least one medal in Sydney look pretty good.

It is important that all boosters of U.S. triathlon know a thing or two about the women theyll be rooting for come Sept. 16, when the inaugural Olympic Triathlon takes place in beautiful Sydney.


The Road Warrior: Jennifer Gutierrez

Jennifer Gutierrez, 33, is getting a taste of the big time. After flying beneath the radar of the mainstream press during most of her five-year career as a pro triathlete, suddenly everyone wants a piece of her.

In fact, this past week she spent so much time participating in photo shoots for Sports Illustrated and Self, she scarcely found a moment to train.

Its hard to complain about it, though, she says. I worked hard to get to this point.

The Texas native has indeed paid her dues, having done more international and World Cup racing than any other American triathlete on the road to the Olympics. Her motive for doing so was not just to collect those all-important ITU points, but to face the worlds best triathletes in competition as often as possible.

Its been hard, she said, but I feel that its why I am where I am today.

Gutierrez started on the path toward where she is today as a high school swimmer and runner in San Antonio. She swam well enough to earn a scholarship to Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where she set three school records. She began doing triathlons in 1994 on the encouragement of her boyfriend (now husband), Bob Utberg.

Among her top accomplishments in the sport since turning pro in 1995 are victories at USTS Columbus in 98 and at St. Kitts in 99, and, of course, her seventh-place/top American showing at Aprils ITU World Cup Sydney, where she claimed her Olympic berth.

After Sydney, medal or no medal, Gutierrez, who put on hold a career as an adaptive physical therapist in order to chase her Olympic dream, plans to race one more season as a pro, then retire.

This is a hobby, she says of the sport that has consumed her for four years.

The Fish: Sheila Taormina

I knew I had the potential, said Taormina, 31, of making the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team, but I did surprise myself a little bit. I havent been doing triathlons for very long, and Ive made plenty of rookie mistakes. My hope was just that I had learned enough from them that I could do well [in the Trials], and I guess I had.

Competing in the Olympics will be nothing new for Taormina.

In 1996, she won a gold medal for the United States in the Atlanta Games as a member of the Olympic record-setting 800-meter freestyle relay team. Like most swimmers who reach the Olympics, Taormina began swimming as a grade-schooler. She continued through college, and was a four-time All-American at the University of Georgia and competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Trials before earning a spot on Team USA at last in 96.

Two years later, Taormina took up triathlon, motivated by the feeling that there remained within her some athletic potential that had not been realized. After winning the first triathlon she entered, Taormina, a devout Christian, prayed for two months about whether she should turn pro and set her sights on the Olympics.

She decided to go for it.

Last year, Taormina came out of nowhere (from the perspective of the established elite women) to become a contender for the Olympic Team. With the trials only a year away, she needed to race extremely well in order to earn sufficient ITU points even to receive an invitation there, and she pulled it off.

Remarkably, she placed seventh in just her second World Cup event, in Cancun, Mexico, then produced head-turning second-place and firstplace finishes at USTS races in Austin and Detroit, respectively. She emerged first from the water in every race she entered, save one.

This year, before winning the Olympic Trials in Dallas, Taromina took sixth place in the World Championships a solid indication that an Olympic medal is within her reach in September.

Taormina agrees. I think I can be on the podium, she said. If she does win a medal, she plans to use the exposure to further her career as a public speaker, which occupies much of her time already.

Taormina also coaches a masters swim club and serves as commissioner of the Parks & Recreation Department in her hometown of Livonia, Michigan.

The Scientist: Joanna Zeiger

Like many professional triathletes, Joanna Zeiger, 30, has a full life away from training and racing.

A graduate of Brown University, Zeiger is working toward a Ph.D. in genetic epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. I like keeping my mind occupied with things that have nothing to do with triathlon, she said.

As busy as her research keeps her, Zeiger is known as one of the higher-volume trainers in the sport. In fact, she considers the Ironman distance her specialty, not the Olympic distance.

Supporting this contention is the fact that she has finished sixth at the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship two years in a row. Yet her short-course results are equally impressive. Earlier this spring, for example, Zeiger won both the St. Croix and St. Anthonys International Triathlons.

A qualifier for the '88 and '92 U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming, not to mention the 2000 Trials in the marathon, Zeiger feels that maintaining a high-mileage training load allows her to compete to her full potential at any distance.

I train the same no matter what kind of racing Im doing next, she said. If I hadnt done the Olympic Trials, I could just as easily have done Ironman Brazil instead.

When asked which would mean more to her, an Olympic gold medal or an Ironman victory, Zeiger is quick to answer, Nothing compares to a gold medal in the Olympics."

She will, however, shoot for both this year, competing in Ironman Hawaii just four weeks after the Olympic Triathlon.

Its on my way home from Sydney, she quips.

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