Sheila Taormina is an Olympic Gold Medalist in Swimming and is the only woman to have competed in three different sports (swimming, triathlon, pentathlon) in different Olympiads. She was recently in Bismarck to conduct a swimming clinic.
IW Based on your experience, do you feel children are pushed to excel in athletics too early in life?
ST I think now they are, yes, absolutely. There is so much information available now about what the top athletes do (for training) that there is pressure to do what they do. What do kids have to look forward to for improvement when they get into college and their physical bodies are really ready for it? When I was growing up there was no pressure, and I really did not care that much. I was having too much fun with my friends!
IW So you weren’t competitive when you were younger?
ST I was competitive, but I never cared about winning. I always tell people I was a very curious competitive person. If someone beat me I always thought, ‘I wonder if I can go that fast?’ It wasn’t like I wanted to dominate or be number one, there was this curiosity. ‘What is she doing that she can go that fast?’ I would read, look at the pictures and learn more and more. I was sort of a geek.
IW It doesn’t seem like many people would approach it that way, being curious...
ST I would look at everything – ‘Is she acting serious, do I have to be more serious?’ You know some girls get all focused and put the music on, laser beam eyes. I thought maybe I should act like that, but I never could because I would start laughing!
In 1996, our women’s Olympic (swimming) team, ranging in age from 14 – 28 (I was second oldest at 27), all sat down in a circle on the floor and our coaches asked us to share what our teammates could do on race day to help us go faster. Do you want to be left alone, joke around, what would help you? Every answer was so unique, it was a fascinating exercise.
IW What would you say to parents that may be pushing too hard?
ST If the kid loves the sport enough, they will push themselves. They don’t need anybody pushing them harder. If the young athlete does not have the competitive, goal-driven love for it, you are never going to put that into them. They were either born with it, or not.
IW They can still love the sport without being goal-driven, right?
ST Absolutely. Sometimes being too driven can be unhealthy. I think I pushed too hard for too many years. What toll does that take on your internal system, your heart? I have seen a lot of people burn out early, maybe the pressure got to them or they got physically injured. Sometimes they just don’t want the abuse anymore.
IW You also do keynote speaking. Do you do more swimming clinics or keynote speaking?
ST Swimming clinics, for sure. The books really launched that. (she has written two). I travel a lot, internationally, too. That makes it hard to get in an exercise routine. But I tell myself I should be careful, let my body repair, especially my heart.
IW How did you decide to compete in the Pentathlon?
ST One of the pentathletes approached me at the Olympic Training Center. When they asked me, I couldn’t even name the sports involved.* At first I wasn’t interested. I was two years into Triathlon training for the ’04 Olympics. Then they said they thought I could be the first person to get to the Olympics in a third sport. When they said that, once again, it wasn’t ‘oh, I can go conquer the world’, it was ‘wow, I’ve never even thought about that.’ I did find out a man from Belgium had done it in the 30’s, but I would be the first woman to do it. It became an interesting mental challenge for me. I was 36 when I took up the Pentathlon and I had to learn three of the sports from scratch. At that point I still had the desire to push. And then the Pentathlon wore me out. I am still recovering mentally and physically.
IW What was the hardest sport to learn?
ST They were all difficult in their own ways, but I think fencing was hardest. I come from rhythm and muscle memory sports: running, cycling, swimming. Fencing is a game of trickery and you switch up your timing, there is no muscle memory. And then the shooting, it’s you against your nerves.
IW How did you decide to turn your swimming knowledge into a business, your career?
ST I felt some of the information being given to triathletes and swimmers was not the whole story. I knew what I had to say was a lot more complicated. There is so much more going on under the water and I had the desire to ‘be the other voice.’
* The Modern Pentathlon events are: pistol shooting, fencing, 200 m freestyle swimming, horse show jumping and a 3 km cross country run.