Two years ago, going for the gold again was the furthest thing from Sheila Taormina's mind. Out of shape, she hadn't returned to the pool where she had won her first gold medal, let alone consider the triathlon.

But in Sydney, Australia, she will be swimming, biking, and running in one of the most rigorous events in the Olympics. To hear Taormina tell it, her faith helped lead her back to competition.

At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Taormina won a gold medal by swimming the third leg on the 800-meter freestyle relay team that included Jenny Thompson, Christina Teuscher, and Trina Jackson. The foursome set a U.S. record in the event.

"I got a gold medal," she says. "I had done the Olympics. I thought I was moving on."

"I firmly believe that our lives are God's gift to us. What we do with our lives is our gift to God."

But in traveling around the country after the Atlanta Games, Taormina found herself speaking to school children, business people, and Christian groups. She was surprised to find that her Olympic story enthralled audiences, regardless of age and religious upbringing.

"I firmly believe that our lives are God's gift to us," Sheila says. "What we do with our lives is our gift to God. The more I spoke to people, the more I began to wonder if I had stepped away from the Olympics too soon."

After her time on the road, Taormina returned to suburban Detroit, where she grew up. In an effort to get back into shape, she fell in with a local group of triathletes. At their urging, she competed in a local meet and finished well. Even though Taormina was intrigued with the possibility of medalling in two different events, she initially resisted the allure to compete seriously again.

"The problem with sports" on the world-class level, she says, "is you have to become very selfish with your time, how you approach life on a daily basis. There are days when I think I could better spend my time working with the youth groups at my local church."

In training for the Olympic triathlon, which involves swimming nine-tenths of a mile, biking 24.8 miles, and running 6.2 miles, Taormina is up at dawn and routinely trains throughout the day. After winning the U.S. triathlon trials in late May, Taormina gave herself a week off before she was back to preparing for the first Olympics that will offer the triathlon as a medal sport.

While the U.S. team is relatively young and inexperienced (Taormina has only been competing for 15 months), they could surprise in Sydney. If anything, they could take solace from the Americans that have dominated the sport in the past. Many of them were also on the cutting edge when it came to mental preparation. Karen Smyers, formerly the top-ranked woman triathlete in the world, fell short in the U.S. trials. But that she even competed is remarkable because Smyers is battling thyroid cancer.

If Taormina is looking for a mental edge, she need only study the races of American Mark Allen. Known as the Zen Master, Allen won the famed Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii six times. Despite Olympic status, the Ironman ranks as the ultimate measuring stick for triathletes. In that race, competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a full marathon, 26.2 miles. After holding the lead several different years and failing to win, Allen eventually opened himself to just about everything. He went on vision quests in Mexico and prayed to the gods of the Big Island, where the Ironman is annually held.

"I had to make myself open to all of it," says Allen, who will be one of NBC's commentators in Sydney. "The possible triumph, but the pain as well. I learned it is all one big package, and you don't have a shot at winning until you accept that."

Even though Taormina isn't ready to call herself the next Zen Master, she agrees in large part with Allen's philosophy.

"Through my faith, I've learned that my identity cannot be caught up with winning a gold medal," she says. "That's not to say I don't go into the race with expectations, that I expect to kick butt. Still, I have to open to anything that the race brings me."

Taormina credits her faith, Christian non-denominational, in helping her not only with her sport but her entire life. The youngest of eight children, she attended college at the University of Georgia, eventually earning an M.B.A. There were plenty of ups and downs along the way, she says. Not too many years ago, she was waitressing at a Waffle House in Athens, Ga., while she went to school and wondering what to make of her life. Today, she has her own company and gives motivational lectures when she isn't training. Her faith has taught her to never hold back.

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