U.S. Olympian Makes History

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008; 10:12 AM

Sheila Taormina made Olympic history last night when she won a nomination to her fourth Olympic team in her third sport.

A past Olympian in swimming and triathlon, Taormina is expected to represent the United States in modern pentathlon at the Aug. 8-24 Summer Games in Beijing, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced. At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Taormina earned a gold medal as a member of the 4x200 relay team. In Sydney in 2000, she finished sixth in the triathlon and in Athens she was 23rd.

Taormina, 39, took up the sport of pentathlon -- which involves shooting, swimming, running, equestrian and fencing -- three years ago while still competing in triathlons.

She is expected to be joined on the women's team by Margaux Isaksen, 16, the USOC said.

"I always get a feeling of thankfulness to God," Taormina said by phone yesterday. "Just the fact that I've stayed healthy all these years, and somehow, financially, I managed to get through it."

The USOC's announcement, which it noted was not official until it had invitations in hand from the international pentathlon association, ended an anxiety-filled month for Taormina. She thought she had clinched her Olympic spot at the conclusion of the World Cup season in mid-May but was told by USOC officials her celebration was premature.

But Taormina hired a lawyer when she realized the USOC's interpretation of the selection procedures differed from hers. The precaution proved unnecessary when she won one of seven at-large qualification spots yesterday from the pentathlon association.

Like Taormina, Americans Michelle Kelly and Isaksen also met international qualification standards, but Taormina topped the other two in the USOC's tiebreaker, which was World Cup performance this spring. Taormina finished ninth overall. Isaksen was 10th and Kelly, who won last year's Pan American Championships, finished 29th.

Nations can send just two athletes per gender to the Olympic modern pentathlon tournament.

"The right thing ended up happening here in the end," Taormina said. But "it's not good to see anybody not make the team."

Having sold her home to finance her training and experienced myriad frustrations that tempted her to quit, Taormina let relief wash over her when she received a copy of the pentathlon association's news release yesterday indicating that she had won a first-round qualifier. It had been unclear whether she would have made the team had she been on the pentathlon association's second-round list of qualifiers, to be issued June 15.

"These three years, I survived it with just the right amount of support at the right time to get me through it," said Taormina, who still trains with her longtime triathlon coach Lew Kidder and swim coach of 30-plus years, Greg Phill.

In what could be one of the more amusing pairings at the Beijing Games, Taormina will be hanging out with Isaksen, a teenage phenom in the sport who was just 4 when Taormina competed in her first Olympic Games. The two, 23 years apart, would be among the oldest and youngest U.S. Olympians.

"I'm tired and old and cranky," Taormina said in April. "And she's all bright and bubbly . . . Her mother is more my age than she is. Her mother is my age, actually."

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