Sheila Taormina is an Olympic swimmer who won the gold medal as a member of the U.S. women’s team in the 4×200 meter freestyle relay in 1996. She also qualified for the Olympics in swimming, triathlon, and modern pentathlon, making her the first woman to ever qualify for the Olympics in three different sports. Plus, she let me wear her gold medal, so I think she’s pretty cool. I was lucky enough to get a chance to sit down at talk to her about her life and experiences as a female athlete.
HCK: How did you begin your career as an athlete?
ST: I never thought of it as a career. I was just a young child who was on a swim team, and I of course I had an older sister and I saw her go on to high school swimming. Like all young girls I wanted to copy my older sister, and when I was in high school a few girls on my team were getting scholarships and going to college so I dreamed of that. But there were just little stepping-stones everywhere along the way. I wanted to go the next step and my coaches and parents were always taking that step with me.
HCK: Was that support system important to you?
ST: I’m so blessed. Yeah, you know, I don’t know many women who don’t need a support system. I think coaches who are dealing with men or women athletes need to know how important that support is and I was very fortunate to have coaches who did. Because, you know, you have bad days and sometimes you just need someone.
HCK: Are there any women you look to for inspiration?
ST: As far as athletes go, my role model is actually a man, from the 1924 games. He was a Scotsman who raced for Great Britain but his Olympic race, the 100 meter dash in track and field, fell on a Sunday and he wouldn’t run because it was the Sabbath. The British Olympic committee kept saying, well, this is the Olympics so you can make an exception. I admire him because he had his convictions, you know, he said this is something more important to me than my sport and I’m standing by it. They ended up putting him in the 400 which was on a different day and he won the gold. If you’ve ever seen “Chariots of Fire,” it’s based on him. His name is Eric Liddell. My female role models were always women on my team. We had icons, like Janet Evans was my icon and we had some other big names that I admired. But to me a role model is someone who you know more about than just their swimming times.
HCK: As a female Olympian did you ever face any form of sexism?
ST: I never faced any form of sexism. I recognize that the women who came before me, even women who are just 15 years older than I am, didn’t have the same opportunities I did in college to get scholarships and compete because women didn’t have the same level of equality in their time. There’s really a generation of women who are out there right now, doing triathlons, getting healthy and doing this because they didn’t have the opportunities when they were younger. But by the time I was in high school it was fully encouraged. I never faced any feelings that the male athletes had any advantages over females. At the Olympics I didn’t feel that gender made a difference but maybe that’s because the sports I do, they’re very equal. I remember hearing comments not at the Olympics but at World Cups the male athletes saying they should be paid more prize money because they had 2 times as many entrances and the women didn’t have quite the numbers the men did, so that was the only type of comment like that I ever heard. To them I’m just like, “hey you know what, I’ll race ya.”
HCK: That’s sort of what measures like Title IX are trying to address. Do you support initiatives aimed at getting more young women into sports?
ST: We definitely have some catching up to do. It’s a worthwhile initiative. I don’t know what its like to be a young woman today and whether its cool to be in a sport or not cool. I never felt in high school that being a swimmer was either uber cool or uncool. It was like, I am who I am. I have a twin brother and he’s commented recently, “I remember you in high school, you didn’t care if you were popular or not. You had such defined goals you weren’t worried whether everybody liked you or not.” I think it’s so nice that sports just take your focus away from the popularity contest and put it on something really positive, something you can control.
HCK: Would you consider yourself a competitive person?
ST: It’s funny, I must be but I don’t feel like I am. I always felt I was a more curious than competitive. I always just thought “I wonder if I could one day keep up with Janet Evans.” I would just study her on the pool deck. “She’s got two arms and two legs like I have. What is it that makes her go so fast?” You know, thinking like that. I’d look at their personalities or peek at their technique sometimes—look underwater at their lane. I was always curious what is it they’re doing that makes them so successful. It wasn’t like “oh I’ve got to beat her.” It was always, “I wonder if I could do that.”
HCK: What are some books you think every woman should read?
ST: Ok I’m in love with John Steinbeck and if he was alive I’d want to marry him. The way he writes just captivates me. He’s not a woman but I just love all his books. I do think Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” is a great one. Women, you know, we sometimes let our thoughts run away with us. We overthink things. Be careful because it only gets worse as you get older if you don’t put the reins on it!
HCK: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but can you talk about what it feels like to win a gold medal?
ST: I actually have a gold medal with me here…
(At this point I start freaking out about the medal and freak out even further when she tells me I can wear it)
ST: That’s the best part. I love giving it to people and then saying “that’s not the real one,” and then saying “no it really is,” because I love that look.
HCK: You got me!
ST: The best part about having it is letting others hold it. I tell everybody “you already know what it feels like to win a gold medal,” because anytime you’ve had something good happen to you, and you feel filled with happiness inside, you feel what it feels like to win a gold medal. And it’s also thankfulness for me. I get asked a lot, “are you proud of what you’ve accomplished?” But it isn’t about pride at all. I felt pure thankfulness. I took it really seriously and thought “ok, now I should be a role model for kids.” I immediately just got the feeling that I should share this. I always tell people the day I got home from the Olympics with my medal, nobody was on my front doorstep saying “oh my gosh can I do the dishes for you or change the kitty litter?” I mean, every day you start anew. You never get a free ride and its not like you ever “arrive.” You know, every day you make what you want of your life. It doesn’t define me at all.
HCK: I know that you travel to schools around the country—how do you share your experiences with them?
ST: One of my favorite things to do is school assemblies. Talking to kids about what potential really is, you know, and how you get through the tough days. At school assemblies you know with 1st or 2nd graders, younger kids, if you ask them if they have a dream every one of them raises their hand. Then you ask them “do you really think you’re going reach that dream?” Every one of them raises their hand. If you ask that to high school seniors, the story is completely different. Half of the hands go up in the first place and then if you ask if they think they have the confidence to get there, even less go up, maybe 15%. To crowds like that talk about how yes, there are a lot of tough challenges and obstacles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your goals. Nowadays I also talk to people about anxiety because when I went into the pentathlon and tried to learn shooting and fencing and equestrian and jumping, it was overwhelming and I started to have anxiety for the first time in my life. I’d never felt that feeling before. You know, I went to the Olympics and made Olympic history but was dealing with how to manage the anxiety and pressures of life, as a woman making her way in the world.
HCK: What advice would you give to a young woman working to succeed athletically?
ST: “How much do you love it?” is what I’d ask her. Competition in sport should be a healthy stress in our lives. Managing relationships for a young girl is hard. I’ve had all different types of boyfriends who have tested me you know, saying “Do you love me more than your sport?” or even your friends will do that, and it was kind of like “This is who I am, and a real friend would support that.” You’ll know you’re passionate if you can envision something in the future about it, whether it’s a college scholarship or a big game or a goal time you want to achieve—then you know that it’s part of you. One man told me we’re all born with a compass in our hearts, and to go with the direction in which your compass points you, and don’t let anybody tell you are wrong for that or that’s a silly thing to do. As women, we hear everything and it permeates our minds. You’re trying to please everyone, you’re trying to be everything to everybody instead of just being who we are. And that’s what I’ve really learned: I love my sport, I love my faith, I love coffee, I love cats, and I’m not going to let anybody tell me I’m wrong for that. Don’t feel guilty for it.