Sheila Taormina was born and raised in Livonia, Michigan. She began swimming with the Clarenceville Swim Club at the age of six and went on to set several Michigan high school records before earning multiple All-American and Academic All-American designations in college. After two unsuccessful attempts to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team she broke through in 1996 and won a gold medal for swimming the third leg on the 800-freestyle relay team in Atlanta. Four years later, she won the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials in the sport of triathlon and led the event at the Sydney Games for much of the way before eventually finishing 6th. In 2003, Sheila also won a silver medal in triathlon at the Pan Am Games, and a year later, joined a bare handful of athletes ever to reach the top of the world in a second major sport by winning the ITU World Championship Triathlon in Madiera, Portugal before competing in her third Olympic Games in Athens.
In an attempt to do what no athlete has ever done, Sheila switched sports again in 2005 with a dream to become the first person in U.S. history to compete in the Olympic Games in three separate sports. Her newest sport is modern pentathlon, a demanding combination of pistol shooting, epee fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping (on a horse they’ve never met before the competition), and cross-country running, all within a single day. At the time of this interview, Sheila appears all but certain to make the U.S. team and fulfill her dream. In 2007, the United States Sports Academy named Michigan’s own Sheila Taormina winner of the Jim Thorpe Award as the best all-round athlete in the world, joining an impressive list of sports luminaries that includes Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Dan O’Brien, Danny Ainge, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
BMN: How has being raised in Michigan impacted your life?
SHEILA: My childhood in Livonia provided me with a great combination of superior education, great friendships, lasting values, and abundant opportunity. I couldn’t have asked for more.
BMN: What organized sports did you participate in as a kid and what role do you think they played in sparking your career?
SHEILA: I began swim training with an age group team in Livonia (Clarenceville) at the age of six and have stayed with it through most of the 33 years since. Eventually, it led to a scholarship at the University of Georgia, where I earned a B.A. and MB.A, and then to a career as a professional athlete.
BMN: What is your favorite Olympic memory?
SHEILA: That’s a hard choice, but I guess it would be the night we won the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay in Atlanta. The chants of the crowd – “U-S-A, U-S-A” were so loud, my spine still tingles when I think about it.
BMN: What has been the biggest challenge in taking on a new sport at this point in your career and how have you overcome it?
SHEILA: Learning three completely new sports (fencing, shooting, equestrian show jumping) within a pretty short period of time. Prior to 2005, I had never held a sword or a gun, and never even ridden a horse.
BMN: What advice do you have for Michigan kids who are harboring Olympic dreams of their own?
SHEILA: You may not have any more talent than the next person, but you can always outwork them. Find a good coach, then pay attention and give all you’ve got, every day. Never cut corners – you’ll only be cheating yourself.
BMN: Training and competitions take you all over the world. What places do you most look forward to visiting when you make it back to Michigan?
SHEILA: Gosh, it’s tough to give you a single answer. I do love to run with my friends on the Potawatomi Trail near Dexter. It’s so peaceful and picturesque, it just takes all your cares away. And afterwards, we can go to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor – it has got to be the best deli in the world.
BMN: What makes Michigan special?
SHEILA: Lots of things – but, above all, it’s my family. I’m one of eight kids and we are all very close.
BMN: What are your thoughts on the Buy Michigan Now campaign and the importance of supporting the local community?
SHEILA: Buy local. Not only does that help your friends and neighbors, it’s the way to be a good global citizen.
BMN: What Shout Out do you have for your friends and fans in Michigan?
SHEILA: Beijing is it for me! After that, I’m coming home to stay.