Stalker ordeal shadows Taormina as she trains for Olympic pentathlon

Taormina is looking to become the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports. AP Photo/Armando Franca

CHICAGO -- Sheila Taormina is more guarded now. She sits in a hotel restaurant at 7 a.m., eyeballing the breakfast buffet. She agrees to meet only after a mini word-of-mouth background check. She's read self-help books on forgiveness; she's sat on the therapy couch, wrung 12 months of anxiety out of her soul, and told the counselor she wants to enjoy people again.

She proceeds to pour her heart out about everything from stalkers to growing old to how she used to be able to put away a lot more than the spinach-and-cheese omelet, three pieces of bacon and blueberries and cottage cheese she has on her plate.

"When I was in my phase where I'd just be alone in my house and cry," Taormina says, "people would ask, 'Why are you crying?' I'd feel so alone. No one [understood] what I was trying to do."

Maybe Taormina doesn't understand it herself. She waves to a fellow athlete who's seated at a table a few feet away. Taormina is so different than most of them. She's 39. A girl she's competing with for a modern pentathlon spot at the Olympics is 16 years old. Taormina e-mails the teenager's mother because, of course, they have much more in common.

If it was just about capturing the past, Taormina would not be here, six years after a stalking incident consumed her life, 12 years after she won a gold medal in swimming. No, this is about history. If she makes it to Beijing, Taormina will become the first woman to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports.

If she makes it, maybe the 5-foot-3, 117-pound woman can prove to herself how strong she can be.

Livonia, Mich., is a sprawling suburb 20 miles removed from the shadowy grime of downtown Detroit. The first 32 years of Taormina's life were simple and passed without her ever stepping foot in a court room or a police station. In the Taormina house, which brimmed with eight children, all people were considered good until proven otherwise.

Sheltered? Maybe. But Sheila, the youngest of the family, liked it that way. High school and college were centered on books and jocks … the hard-core ones who passed up parties to swim laps. In 1996, after she swam the third leg on the United States' gold-medal 800-meter freestyle relay team in Atlanta, Taormina had enough trust in mankind to buy a camper and tour the country, in 8,000-mile jaunts, for speaking gigs. She was bubbly and Midwestern naive, a young woman navigating the United States alone, without even a cell phone. Some nights, she'd pull into a campground at 1 o'clock in the morning, fumbling through the dark for a pay phone to tell her mom she was OK. In her world, she was bulletproof.

And in the summer of 2002, when Livonia's local hero was in the middle of another conquest, qualifying for the Athens Olympics in the triathlon, Taormina didn't think twice about helping a stranger who'd called to answer an ad about swimming lessons.

"Is this Sheila?" the man asked.

He seemed surprised that she picked up the phone, that an Olympian was so real and ordinary. James Conyers said he was a pro triathlete from Flint, Mich., who needed help lowering his times. They talked roughly 15 minutes about business and swimming and biking.

By the next day, "the weirdness started" with a phone message from Conyers.

"I think you'll probably win the gold medal in 2004," he said, "and when you retire in 2005, you'll have my baby."

One call spiraled to late-night rings, Fed Ex packages and disturbing notes detailing masturbation and his plans to rape Taormina. Leave Livonia, the United States Olympic Committee urged Taormina. So she flew to Colorado Springs and holed up in a cheap motel.

She had a nightmare that Conyers was standing in the window outside her room, holding a machine gun. In dream and reality, she slid through two queen beds, grabbed the phone and called the front desk.

"He's got a gun! He's got a gun!"

It was sometime around 2 a.m., and a young clerk was working the overnight shift.

"Who's got a gun?"

Upon hearing the voice on the other end, Taormina was jolted awake. She apologized to the girl, who still insisted on calling the police. After a couple of minutes, Taormina convinced her it was a dream and went back to sleep.

"It's embarrassing," Taormina says. "That morning, I woke up and went to the front desk and said, 'Were you the one here at 2 in the morning last night? I just flew into town from a bad situation.'

"I apologized. She was just looking at me like, 'Yeah, whatever, weirdo.' Really embarrassing."

In December 2002, nearly six months after it all began, a warrant was issued for Conyers' arrest on two charges of aggravated stalking. He eventually was ordered to serve five years of probation and was required to wear an electronic tether. He never picked up the tether. But Conyers did show up in Florida, where Taormina was training.

Another warrant was issued, this time for Conyers' violating probation. In May 2003, he received the maximum sentence, up to five years in prison.

In Wayne County Circuit Court in Michigan, the aggravated stalking cases were on the same floor as the murder trials. This surprised Livonia's All-American girl. The first time she stepped into that courtroom and heard a sampling of the shootings and death, she got up and had to leave. She felt sick to her stomach.

In prison terms, Conyers, 40, "maxed out," meaning he served his full sentence and had no further restrictions placed on him when he walked out of the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in southern Michigan on Jan. 27.

Inmate 452053 had been denied parole, in part, because of 21 misconducts that ranged from insolence to disobeying a direct order from an officer.

"I would say he was not a model prisoner," says Russ Marlan, the department's public information officer. "He had some difficulty. For five years, [21 misconducts] is a greater than average amount."

Taormina always wondered how she'd feel when Conyers was free. She did not hear from Conyers in those five years and hasn't received any communication from him since his release. Calls to Conyers' attorney, George Chedraue, were not returned.

Her nightmares are gone, and she hasn't thought about Conyers much in the past couple of years. She is careful and guarded with strangers now and doesn't feel that she has to be overtly friendly to everyone. But she can't help herself sometimes. Before therapy -- and the meditation sessions -- a thousand thoughts ran through her head. Is he getting help? Is he learning a lesson? Will he be more angry when he comes out and want to hurt me?

"Through counseling, I learned I don't have the answer to any of those questions," Taormina says. "I can't know the answer. But I won't let my thoughts run away and start thinking this may happen or that may happen [because] then it leads to my emotions being reactive. I'm going to live my life and have a good day."

The thing nobody really knows is that Taormina never really had much self-esteem. She could stand on the medals platform, the national anthem playing, and still feel inadequate. She thinks, now, that it was a good thing. It pushed her harder than everybody else.

In 1996, when she won gold, she'd wonder if she deserved it as much because she swam the slowest leg of her team. After Atlanta, she wasn't supposed to compete ever again. Every time a little girl in a pool asked if she would swim in another Olympics, Taormina would smile and say she was retired.

Cloud over Olympic qualifying

The battle for two spots on the U.S. women's modern pentathlon team might end with lawyers and intense controversy.

Sheila Taormina thought she clinched a place on the team last weekend by finishing the World Cup competition as the highest ranking American. But an interpretation of the United States selection procedures could prevent Taormina from becoming the first female athlete to qualify for the Olympics in three different sports.

"This was pretty clear stuff to the athletes," Taormina's coach, Lew Kidder, said. "Go bust your ass in these trials and may the best two women win. That's why I get frustrated, and I'm not nearly as frustrated as Sheila is."

According to Kidder, a clarifying statement issued by the United States Olympic Committee in late April actually muddied the issue. It said if an athlete received an Olympic qualification place by the International Pentathlon Union on June 1, U.S. Pentathlon would nominate that athlete. Problem is, the UIPM is supposed to release two lists -- the second two weeks later -- and only Michelle "Mickey" Kelly is expected to be on the first one.

Kidder says Kelly, Taormina and Margaux Isaksen are all expected to receive invitations from the UIPM. But only two athletes can go to Beijing, and Kelly would go by virtue of medaling in last year's Pan Am Games.

Taormina finished ninth among U.S. athletes in World Cup rankings; Isaksen 10; and Kelly was 29th. Their last competition is the world championships in Hungary at the end of the month. If Isaksen finishes strong, she could move ahead of Taormina in the Olympic rankings and possibly be named on the June 1 list.

Kidder said the confusing process has been stressful for Taormina, 39, who defied odds to learn three events in three years.

"Sheila is not doing well," he said. "She's a very emotional person. She has tremendous highs and lows, and she's at the bottom of the scale right now."

USOC spokesperson Darryl Seibel did not immediately return a call placed by ESPN.com.

-- Elizabeth Merrill

Her introduction to the world of hard-core triathlete competition happened by accident, after she gained 10 pounds slamming down Taco Bell and McDonald's on her camper rides through Fargo and California and the Carolinas. Taormina went into it to slim down and left with another obsession.

She qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and finished sixth in the triathlon; a 2004 appearance in Athens yielded a 23rd-place finish. In late '04, chasing one final summer fling, she dabbled in cross-country skiing. A lack of snow -- and coaching -- turned her off. So she decided on the modern pentathlon, a seemingly impossible challenge for a late 30-something.

The pentathlon, in its truest form, is supposed to simulate the experience of a 19th-century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines. He or she must fight with a pistol and sword, swim and run, and ride an unfamiliar horse. Taormina had to master three of these events in three years.

"[People] from other nations laughed at her," her coach, Lew Kidder, says. "They said this was a joke, that she was going to be no competition, she had no chance, she couldn't learn these things. They said it would be like a baby in with Michael Jordan or something like that.

"But they've changed their minds."

At roughly 8 o'clock each night, Taormina turns off her cell phone. Burned out from her eight- to 10-hour training days, she takes an hour to unwind before going to bed. She didn't date for three years after the stalking ordeal. Now, she laughs, she has no life.

Her friends are so different. They're married with kids and minivans. There was a time, not too long ago, when her family begged her to stop competing. She'd sob, practically every day, because she had few sponsors, cash or people who understood. She'd walk through the cafeteria at the Olympic training center, ashamed to be carrying around a plastic tray with kids.

Her therapist calls it the "tyranny of the shoulds."

"You should be married," Taormina says, "you should have kids … so many people let this tyranny of shoulds stop them from reaching their dreams and being who they are."

Why is she doing this? History tells her she shouldn't. Some days, her body tells her she can't. But Taormina wants to trust again. She looks at her watch and realizes it's past 8. She should be running.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.