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Sheila Taormina: The Olympian next door


Four-time Olympian and gold medalist Sheila Taormina coaches swimmers in the
Sarasota TSUNAMI Masters program at the Arlington Park Pool in June.

Published: Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 12:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 12:54 p.m.

SARASOTA - The new coach on the pool deck observed the Sarasota Tsunami Masters swimmers for a couple of days before she began injecting stroke mechanics into early-morning practices at the Arlington Park pool. The petite woman with the raspy voice mimicked strokes and talked swimming physics. Sometimes, she referred to pictures from her book, the one that says "4-time Olympian and triathlon world champion" on the front.

"I think this will help you," Sheila Taormina told a swimmer who seemed nervous, and eager to do her own thing.

Taormina, a 46-year-old three-sport Olympian, moved to Sarasota to coach the Tsunami Masters program alongside former coach and friend Ira Klein. The pair, who have known each other for two decades, hope to grow the program from 25 to 100 and cater to fitness swimmers, those new to the pool and triathletes. News of the program's new coach is exciting for members who say consistent coaching is needed for the masters program.

Mark Usher, a 62-year-old financial adviser, had coincidentally purchased Taormina's book on swim mechanics to give him an edge in triathlons.

"I was so excited when I heard she was coming," Usher said from the pool deck recently. "Her enthusiasm comes across and you know she has the credibility when she tells you something."

Before she earned gold on the 1996 U.S. 4x200-meter freestyle relay, before she participated in four Olympic cycles and became the first woman to make the Olympics in three sports, Taormina was a 25-year-old swimmer set to represent the United States in the 1995 World University Games in Fukuoka, Japan. For two weeks, Klein was her charismatic coach, chosen to guide American swimmers during the two-week international Olympic-style sporting competition for collegiate athletes. The pair lost touch for more than a decade until 2007, when Taormina, then a 38-year-old Olympic triathlete and swimmer, was training in Colorado to make the Games in a third discipline — the modern pentathlon. Dissatisfied with her pool workouts, she heard Klein worked nearby at the USA Swimming headquarters and tracked him down. Klein trained her in the pool before that last Olympic run in 2008, when a disappointing fencing performance spoiled Taormina's podium chances.

Coaching Taormina ended up being transformative for Klein. He realized he missed being a coach. "That actually helped me see I belong on the pool deck," said Klein, who moved to Sarasota for the head Sarasota YMCA coaching job in 2008, and later formed the Sarasota Swim Academy. For the next seven years, Taormina toured the country, hosting swim clinics, writing books on swim training and hosting motivational talks. But late last year, Taormina decided she had grown tired of traveling, and wanted to coach from a “warm, fun place that would attract people” to travel to her. She spent last November in Sarasota, swimming with the Sarasota Sharks and learning about the area.

“There's another team in town,” some Sharks swimmers told her. And to her surprise, the SRQ Tsunamis team was coached by Klein. The pair had lunch last year. Klein wanted to build up the Arlington Pool masters program to cater to fitness swimmers and triathletes looking to brush up on the basics. Taormina was looking for a coaching job that would leave her time for other projects.

"Sheila doesn't talk kids. She talks adults," Klein said Monday. "That's why all of a sudden we're blossoming."

Olympic glory

The youngest of eight, Taormina and her twin brother started swimming at age 6 for a local YMCA team. By 9, they joined a more competitive club, and Taormina set her sights on swimming in college. A Michigan native, she attended the University of Georgia after meeting the coach at a swim meet and went on to earn the Southeastern Conference title in the 400 individual medley. Though she had Olympic trial cuts by the time she got her masters degree, she felt she was far from a Games contender. She decided the sport's top athletes weren't out of reach if she could change her mechanics and mental game.

She was rejected to train by the University of Michigan, as well as the U.S. Olympic resident training program, so she swam before and after work with her childhood club. She'd surprise some by taking No. 6 at Olympic Trials, earning the last spot on a 4x200 freestyle relay that included two alternates. She'd go on to earn her spot in the Olympic final with a strong performance in the preliminary rounds, and won gold with teammates Jenny Thompson, Trina Jackson and Cristina Teuscher in front of more than 20 family and friends in the Georgia Tech pool in 1996.

“It has real personal meaning to be in Georgia,” Taormina said. “For me, it was special.”

She didn't plan to participate in another Olympics. After that 1996 run, she went back to work in the automotive industry and then spent two years giving speeches. When triathlon coach Lew Kidder spotted her at a local triathlon that she had entered for fun, he persuaded her to compete in a professional triathlon in South Africa, to test herself against other pros. Taormina took third.

There was little time until the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. No time to develop an athletic base, but enough time to throw caution to the wind and go for it. More importantly, Taormina said, she sensed that she could be a serious contender. There were only two competitive opportunities to earn one of three women's spots on the Olympic team. She crashed her bike at the first Olympic qualifier. She won the next one in Dallas.

She took No. 6 place at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia and by the 2004 Games, Olympic gold in triathlon was hers to take. She emerged out of the water with an Australian competitor, and the pair appeared to be riding away with gold and silver. She suffered from a charley horse during the bike portion, and fell to No. 23 before the race was through. The results were a blow, but she refers to a piece of advice that swim coach Greg Phill once told her, something that kept her sane when the "wheels of fate are teaching you how to walk away and be gracious."

“If you have a bad day, there's a couple billion people in the world who have no idea, and really don't care.”

Fame's a funny thing

The adult Tsunamis have had off-and-on coaching since the masters program — any swimmer older than 18 — began. Klein has struggled to spend equal time with the masters swimmers and his youth program. For Melon Dash, who swims mornings Monday through Friday, the extra attention from Taormina is welcomed.

Taormina doesn't feel like a superstar. Almost 10 years after her last Olympic run, Taormina tells a story from a couch outside the downtown Buddy Brew coffee shop.  After the 1996 Olympics, she flew home with Eric Namesnik, a fellow Michigan native and Olympic swimmer nicknamed 'Snik', who after Atlanta, had two individual silver medals to his name.

"You're going to get all the phone calls," she says Namesnik told her then.

"Snik, you are our American record holder, you are an individual silver medal holder," Taormina says she told him. It wouldn't matter, Namesnik told her. She had won gold, he had not. It would be simple in the eyes of the American public — he had lost. And he was right, Taormina said. No one called in 2008, after Taormina placed No. 19 in modern pentathlon, though she had made history as the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in three sports. Namesnik died in 2006 from injuries related to a car accident.

Sometimes, Taormina feels like she hasn't come down from a life that spiraled into so many different directions that she never expected. What she says she does know is that her faith, her parents and her coaches have kept her humble.

"It wasn't difficult for me to walk away from any race and just be Sheila," Taormina said. "I'm not a winner. I'm not a loser. I'm just Sheila."

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