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US Athlete Makes History, Qualifies for Three Olympic Sports

She has Olympic gold in her trophy case, but American Sheila Taormina has achieved more than victory - she has made history by becoming the first American athlete to make the Olympics in three different sports. VOA's David Byrd has this look at Taormina, who will compete in Beijing in the grueling, five-event modern pentathlon.

Sheila Taormina is no stranger to Olympic success. She won a gold medal in swimming in 1996 in Atlanta, swimming the third leg of the 800-meter freestyle relay race for the United States. She then qualified for the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams in the sport of triathlon, which includes swimming, cycling and running. Taormina finished sixth in the triathlon in Sydney and 23rd in Athens.

At the Beijing Olympics, she will compete in the five-sport modern pentathlon. The event is meant to imitate the skills needed by a Napoleonic courier and includes fencing, swimming, running, shooting and horseback riding. Athletes must start with air pistol shooting, then epee fencing. After that comes a 200-meter swim followed by equestrian show jumping. The final event is a three-kilometer run. And it all takes place in one day.

In early June, the 39-year-old Taormina made history when she qualified for the U.S. team, making her the first woman to earn an Olympic berth in three different sports. And the milestone is doubly special because four years ago Taormina had never picked up a pistol, an epee, or ridden any animal larger than a pony. Taormina said that her new sport demands a great deal of her.

"I'll train no more than four sports in a day," said Sheila Taormina. "I used to try to train five on some days, but it is just too difficult. And so usually on any given day there is just one of the sports I am not doing. And it goes from about 7am; I am starting the training and I am finishing up about 5 to 6pm, with very little time in between there for anything else but getting to the next practice. But Sundays I have off completely. I don't go take any day trips anywhere. I just want to stay home when I've got my days off."

Taormina is the youngest of eight children, with 11 nieces and nephews, and says she values her time with her family. In fact, her favorite Olympic memory is not winning the gold in Atlanta, but her sixth place finish in Sydney in the triathlon. Even though she had no chance of finishing higher, Taormina says that the sight of her family cheering made her sacrifices worth it.

"I was coming down to the last 200 meters of the run to finish, and I was in sixth place," she said. "And fifth place was too far away to sprint; I couldn't catch her. And I ran past the 20 members of my family who were at the Sydney Olympics and all of them were jumping up and down. And that became my Olympic moment because at that moment I realized that the people who care about you the most and who I love the most - the relationships that count the most with your family, your close friends, your God - those never changed based on whether you are going to win a gold medal or not going to win a medal at all."

Sheila Taormina almost did not achieve her dream of qualifying in three sports. Because of its elite - but small - following, modern pentathlon was almost eliminated from the Olympics six years ago. Then the U.S. organization that that oversaw its development in the United States for more than 50 years folded.

And there were financial problems. Modern pentathlon does not draw nearly the support as marquee sports like athletics, gymnastics, or swimming. But Taormina persevered. As part of her efforts to make the team, she sold her house - at a loss - in 2006. Taormina said she counted that setback as part of the sacrifice needed to achieve her larger goal of making the Olympic team.

Then there was doubt whether she would be on the team. Nations can send just two athletes per gender to the Olympic competition, and Taormina was one of three American women to meet the international modern pentathlon standard. However, she beat out teammates Michelle Kelly and Margo Isaksen in the USOC's tiebreaker - her performance in the World Cup this year. Taormina finished ninth while Isaksen was 10th and Kelly was 29th.

Taormina says that her goal in Beijing is simple - to enjoy the Olympics again as she did in 1996 - with wide eyes. She says that while her main goal - getting to Beijing - has been achieved, she will be trying to make the podium. But even if she does not medal, Sheila Taormina says that she is satisfied to finish what she started - and to prove that someone her age can learn - and compete - at a new sport at the international level.