Olympic medalist Sheila Taormina now aims for gold in triathlon

Sheila Taormina (right) rides alongside Barb Lindquist (left) and Nicole Hackett at the 2000 ITU World Championships in Perth, Australia  Credit: Tony McDonough/Allsport
U.S. Olympian Sheila Taormina didnt compete against a German freestyler or an Australian triathlete last weekend.

The swimming gold medalist from the 1996 Atlanta Games and titleist at the U.S. triathlon Olympic Trials, along with several hundred other women, took on a tougher foe in the annual Swim Against the Tide at Hopkinton State Park in the suburbs of Boston.

Back for the fourth straight year, Taormina participated as an honorary chairperson in this fund-raiser to support the battle against breast cancer. But because of her busy schedule, she couldnt swim this year and had to catch a cab shortly after the event started.

This is a great cause, Taormina said. When I first went to this back in 97 I fell in love with it. All events are cool, but this one is special: the people, the spirit of it. Were here to make a difference. People are so passionate about the cause. Wed love to beat breast cancer.

Unlike at the recent U.S. Olympic triathlon trials in Dallas, where Taormina pulled off a surprising victory, or in Atlanta four years ago when she swam the third leg of a victorious 4x200 relay, Taormina wouldnt have swum to win even if she had participated.

At most, this one-mile open-water swim would have been a training session for the OlYmpic Games in Sydney later this summer, when shell represent her country again this time in the first-ever Olympic triathlon.

If you get a good workout, thats fine, Taormina said. But cranking out a good workout isnt what the event is about anyway.

Taormina does 98 percent of her training in a pool with the Michigan Masters Swim Team. Yet, besides wearing a wetsuit and not having to worry about flip turns, she doesnt find much difference training in a pool or a lake.

Taormina, 31, has modified her training since devoting herself to triathlon. She swims 20,000 yards per week, as opposed to 70,000 when she was a world-class swimmer. She no longer includes breaststroke or backstroke in her regimen, just freestyle and some butterfly.

Theres less need to do laps with a kickboard the better to conserve her legs for the miles and miles of biking and running needed to prepare for the other components of the triathlon. The Olympic distance in Sydney consists of a swim of just under a mile, a bike ride of just under 25 miles and a 10K (6.2-mile) run.

Taorminas strength as a swimmer served her well in the Olympic triathlon trials, when she topped a field that included favorites Barbara Lindquist another world-class swimmer with the U.S. national teams and triathlon legend Karen Smyers, by emerging from the water in first place after the swim leg in 18:54 (her overall winning time was 2:05:27).

Smyers, a former World and Ironman champion who joined Taormina as an honorary chair for the Swim Against the Tide, is undergoing treatment for her battle with thyroid cancer.

With her, Claire Walker (1948 Olympian), Dot Donnelly (1940 Olympian) these are people that Ive admired, Taormina said. Were all here for a great cause. Thats why I keep coming back.

Taormina is planning to compete in the Toronto ITU Triathlon World Cup on July 8 and the Cleveland Rock 'n' Roll Triathlon on July 16. For the rest of the month, she'll be attending several swim camps, making a number of corporate motivational speeches around the country and continuing her preparation for the Olympics.

Despite the hectic schedule, Taormina says: "My training is going great. It's stressful but I'll be ready."

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