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Photos and Story by Tom Demerly

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No pressure on Sheila's face for the Race.
It was perhaps the single most important day in the history of triathlon. The day the final spots on the first-ever US Olympic Triathlon Team would be determined. In a brilliant stroke of panache, daring and grace, Livonia’s Sheila Taormina left a stunned field scratching their heads as she won the event with a degree of mastery seldom seen in modern endurance sports.

From the starting gun, Taormina showed experience, wisdom and an almost uncharacteristic daring far in advance of her 1- years of experience in triathlons. So powerful was her victory that she left a field of the nation’s (and world’s) top triathlon cyclists more than 3:00 behind her. Her only breakaway companion, Barb Lindquist of Jackson Hole, Wyoming wilted from the Texas heat during the final lap of the run.

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Walking into history.
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Calm and focused.
At the start tension filled the transition area and swim staging zone. Warm-ups were taken in nervous silence. Sheila seemed oddly unaffected, as though she was competing in a local triathlon, not the most important race of her career. Chatty and vibrant the morning of the race, Taormina went through her pre race ritual quickly and efficiently, utterly indifferent to the pressure of the day. (Click to enlarge)

After her swim warm-up.
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Lindquist and Taormina built a 3 minute lead and never looked back.
On the start blocks, it was all business. Taormina got the hole shot in the swim start and didn’t look back. With a half body length lead before she hit the water, Taormina turned in the day’s fastest swim split, despite shaky navigation. Taormina hit the beach two seconds ahead of Barb Linquist in 18:54. The next swimmer would not beach for another minute. And that was the race.

 

 
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The strong chase group lacked organization.
After a 15 second swim to bike transition Taormina joined forces with friend Barb Lindquist. The two were off on the first of five laps of the curvy, undulating bike course. Taormina rode with exceptional power, pushing a 55/12 and 13 gear across the flats and into the wind. Her cadence was slow and menacing as they clipped off lap after lap at an average speed of 23.5 mph. This was the fastest bike split of the day by over a half mile per hour. Taormina seemed at total ease over one minute in front of a chase pack of 12 that contained Jennifer Gutierrez, Susan Bartholomew and Karen Smyers. Despite several concerted efforts on the part of the twelve-person chase group, they only lost time to the duo of Taormina and Lindquist.

In the opening laps of the bike the feeling was that the pair could not hold off a chase group of the best US women’s triathletes. But as the announcer counted out an increasing time gap, the crowd began to sense the drama of what was about to unfold: There would be a commanding victory, or a dramatic melt-down. As it turned out, there were both.

Taormina and Lindquist worked together well, taking short pulls at the front and using each other’s strength to best advantage. They raced flat out. In the chase group there was more discussion (and dissention) than racing. So bold was the move of Taormina and Lindquist there was no consensus on how to respond. Some women felt the pair would self-destruct during the run, and a chase was not necessary. Others pleaded aloud for an organized chase, sensing that Taormina and Lindquist were racing without trepidation, and the race was melting away under a hot Texas sun. Others in the chase were content to sit in the draft and wait to see what happened. They would have to see it on TV.

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The second chase group was out of the race before the bike was over.
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After Lindquist faltered, Sheila cruised to a graceful win.
It was hot. Upper 80s and a relentless and angry Texas wind blowing into town from the open plains. A perfect setting for a classic western show-down between two athletes at high noon on main street. When the gunslingers, Taormina and Lindquist, climbed off their saddles to duel one on one, Taormina was sharper on the draw. Lindquist has a history of difficulty in the heat, and she was short on ammunition this sweltering day. A technicality prevented race organizers from having ice on the course. The rule forbids open containers being passed to athletes to prevent contamination. This meant only bottled water or PowerAde was given to athletes during the run. Ice was not available in sealed containers. This may have made matters worse for a suffering Barb Lindquist. It meant nothing to Taormina, who seemed impervious to the heat, wind, humidity and pressure of competition. Lindquist showed no signs of fading until she neared the third and final lap, when race announcers revealed "One athlete has made a breakaway and gained fifty yards on the other runner". Lindquist had folded, walking off the course and being transported to the medical tent. Taormina powered on. (Click to enlarge)

Ironman Champ, Karen Smyers, couldn't dent Sheila's lead.
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100 meters to go and a thankful smile from Sheila.
Coach Lew Kidder was on the run course as the drama unfolded. When Sheila passed him, he told her to back off, that with a lead as large as hers, she didn’t have to run hard. She completed the course at a somewhat leisurely 6:40 pace in 40:48, only the eighth fastest run split of the day. A charging Joanna Zeiger moved smartly into second place to grab the remaining Olympic spot, but never threatened the iron-clad lead Sheila had built. On the final lap Sheila Taormina was radiant. She smiled as if there was no effort to her steps. She slapped high fives with kids on the course and waved to friends. While Sheila looked like she was doing the local fun run, the other women looked like they had a firmer grasp on what had just happened: They had been crushed. (Click to enlarge)

Taormina was pensive about Barb Lindquist's problems on the run.
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A big smile for the cameras.

Taormina broke the tape in 2:05:27, a full 50 seconds in front of the talented Zeiger even after purposely backing off on the run. While a steady parade of shell shocked women crossed the line Sheila politely entertained a growing throng of reporters and photographers anxious for a look at the country’s newest Olympic Triathlon Team member.

When asked if she was proud to win Sheila responded:

"I am not proud, I am thankful."

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Taormina congratulates Joanna Zeiger.

Taormina was nearly in tears over Lindquist’s collapse on the final lap of the run. The two had worked together well on the bike and Taormina was not comfortable with Barb Lindquist being so close to a coveted Olympic spot, and then losing everything with only two miles left in the race. As one of the most gracious and poised athletes in the history of triathlon, Taormina was eager to tell reporters about her breakaway companion’s contribution to the race and unfortunate problems during the run. Although Sheila was happy to have won and made the Olympic Team, it was obvious she was despondent over her friend, Barb Lindquist’s, unfortunate loss.

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A crush of reporters grills America's newest Olymipian.
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Sheila takes time for an autograph.
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Hugs for Sheila's Twin Brother and Laura Reback.
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Post-race press conference.
When it was said and done, Taormina raced a perfect race from wire to wire, dominating the entire way. Lindquist had difficulty because the conditions were too hot for her. Somehow Taormina seemed impervious to the heat. After the dust settled, the US Olympic Team had been picked. And when they ride into Sydney to square off with the best triathletes from around the world in September, there will be no doubt that the finest triathletes this country can field are on the line for Gold, Silver and Bronze. (Click to enlarge)

All smiles on the massage table after the race.
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