TWO SUMMERS ago Sheila Taormina was stuck in a Buenos Aires motel sharing three bunks with five other athletes in a room that had no air conditioning. Tired but unfazed, she went out and won the Pan Am Championships in modern pentathlon—her first ever competition in the sport. "The lap of luxury is not a part of my dream," says Taormina, now 37.
Her dream is to make history. If she qualifies for the Beijing Olympics in modern pentathlon, which is made up of shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian and cross-country running, she will become the first U.S. woman to compete in the Games in three sports. She swam at the 1996 Olympics and raced in the triathlon in 2000 and 2004. "I never want to wonder, What if?" says Taormina, who won the national modern pentathlon title in Colorado Springs last month. "I don't do well with feelings of being settled and comfortable."
That Taormina is on the verge of reaching her fourth Games is a testament to her spirit. After failing to make the U.S. swim teams in 1988 and '92, she wanted to move to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but coaches told her they didn't see her as Olympic material. Taormina then returned to the University of Georgia, where she earned a master's degree in business in '94. Soon after, her childhood swimming coach in Michigan, Greg Phill, offered to train her for another try at the Games. Despite the layoff, Taormina made the '96 team and in Atlanta swam the third leg on the victorious U.S. 4 � 200-meter freestyle relay. She retired from competition but by '98 had added 10 pounds to her 5'3" frame. Instead of leaving her life as an athlete behind, she took up triathlon to lose weight. She passed out in her second pro event in Florida but persisted, working hard enough to trim back down to 116 pounds—and make the next two Olympic teams. (She finished sixth in Sydney and 23rd in Athens.)
In 2002, while Taormina was training in her hometown of Livonia, Mich., for triathlon, Eli Bremer, a modern pentathlete, casually asked her when she was going to try his sport. Even though she had never picked up a gun or sword or ridden a horse, she was intrigued, and in February 2005 she went to San Antonio to try out before the U.S. pentathlon coaches. They saw enough raw talent to encourage her to pursue the sport. Training, however, was frustrating. That first day in San Antonio she parried her instructor's attacks by grabbing her �p�e with both hands. Taormina fell off her horse a dozen times over the summer. Yet early failures only fueled her stubbornness. "They say it takes 10 years to learn a sport," she says. "I'm trying to challenge that perception. I don't have that much time."
Taormina has already overcome more trying obstacles in life. In June 2002 she received a call from a man named James Conyers. He introduced himself as a triathlete living near her hometown who wanted her advice. The two never met, but the calls kept coming: In one message Conyers told her he had a rose for her, and in another he said he hoped she'd have his child. He sent her bizarre postcards and sexually explicit letters. Taormina obtained a restraining order, but in another letter Conyers threatened to rape her. After many more scares Conyers was arrested, and in May 2003 was sentenced to 40 to 60 months in prison. Because of behavior violations there, he is now scheduled for release in February 2008. "I still fear him," Taormina says, "but I can't let fear and pain take over my life."
Taormina's intense focus has helped carry her to the top level of her newest sport. In June she moved to Colorado Springs to be near the training center, and after six World Cup events this season she is 15th in the world. (She was ranked as high as fourth this year.) She had her first perfect score in the equestrian jumping phase at the U.S. Open last month and will be among the contenders at the world championships which begin on Nov. 15 in Guatemala. Taormina knows she is deferring facing the rest of her life by pursuing yet another athletic dream. "It's a cool thing. This is my chance to chase a new goal because I know I'll only have one shot at it," she says. "Every time, I tell myself this is it ... I think this time I mean it."