Photo credit: ITU/Spomedis

When it came to the Olympics, Sheila Taormina thought the jig was up. She was a 23-year old swimmer and failed to qualify for the 1992 team, which (she thought) was surely her last shot after not making the 1988 team. “I was 23, I had graduated college, and figured it might be time to move on,” she says.

She moved on: Her first stop was grad school to pick up a Masters in business. During that time she hopped in the pool sparingly, but in 1994, the Atlanta Olympic Games began to twinkle on the horizon.

“I was still curious about swimming,” she says now. “I felt there might be more to learn. But did I have a prayer to make the 1996 team?”

Not exactly, coaches told her delicately. “They advised me to just move back home and get a job,” she says. She was also politely rejected by the USA Olympic swimming resident team, and due to NCAA regulations, she couldn’t train with a university team.

Taormina shrugged and returned to her home state of Michigan to pursue a career goal of working in the Detroit auto industry for a parts supplier. Her first job was in quality control, working alongside the assembly line to keep an eye on production and put out fires when things went awry.

Before and after work, however, she swam with a small local group under the watch of a familiar coach, Greg Phill, who had started coaching Taormina when she was 9 years old.

During this time, Taormina began working to satisfy her question about what was left for her to learn as a swimmer. This question had been sparked by old photos of the great Mark Spitz, the Olympian who swept up six gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. In the photos, Taormina became mesmerized with the mechanical details of Spitz’s mastery of the underwater pull.

Working with Phill, Taormina embarked on a quest to become a swimming technician. With Spitz, the path of the pull had a three-dimensional life to it, with the course of movement involving the vertical, lateral and forward/backward planes. Taormina became obsessed with the nuances of the pattern and the relationship of the hand to the elbow. Her coaches got the brunt of it, as Taormina frequently asked for feedback on the orchestration of her hands, arm, elbow, shoulder and the pattern emerging from her experiments.

She swam before work and again at 3 p.m., returning to work afterward when problems erupted on the lines. The job could be wickedly demanding. In fact, placed in the splash zone of the pool deck while she swam, next the coach’s feet, was Taormina’s pager. A single hour lost because of a halt in production sent costs spiraling, and Taormina could find herself scrambling out of the pool, and back on the job until as late as two in the morning.

“It could be a stressful,” she recalls. New vehicle launches were the worst, the production line fraught with bugs to work out. Even when thing were going smoothly, a   shadow was cast into her imagination: speeding into her flip turns lap after lap, Taormina was almost sure she could hear her pager beeping. Most times it wasn’t, and all she got was a puzzled look from the coach.

At the plant, word of Taormina’s two-a-days and Olympic ambition got around the assembly line. The pixie-like Taormina—at 5-foot-3 inches tall—developed a rabid blue-collar fan base. “It really fueled my training,” she says.

What also fueled Taormina’s training was a newfound love for the deeper skills of swimming. She has since become a huge fan of authors like Malcolm Gladwell—in particular his attention to the 10,000-hour rule from The Outliers: That to earn mastery of a skill, the price is at least 10,000 hours of focused practice—and Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, who, to underscore Gladwell’s reporting, describes the neurological mechanics involved with learning a skill. Another favorite of Taormina’s is Mathew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, in which Crawford, an electrician and mechanic, makes a vigorous case for the cognitive value of manual labor and working with your hands.

The shift in Taormina’s swimming practice was resonant of the atmosphere of working with auto builders. In workouts, she carefully began exploring the subtle physics of her hands and arms tacking through the water, her own unique plunge into an ever-brewing controversy in the swimming world: What’s the best way to generate power? Various debates have swayed coaches toward different visions of what’s the most effective and most efficient when it comes to freestyle technique—a divisive issue that is traced back to “Doc” James Counsilman, the Indiana University swim coach in the 1960s who coached Mark Spitz. Counsilman, thinking in terms of fluid dynamics, became an advocate for the sculling path of the pull. Sculling, Counsilman believed, provided the lifting forces that boat propellers are designed to generate. Sculling lift was in contrast to using the hand and arm like a paddle, the dragging forces of a deep pull moving the canoe, or swimmer, through the water.

Another dimension of the debate, that Taormina says was an impetus for writing her books, Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes and Swim Speed Workouts for Swimmers and Triathletes, is the din of the “fishlike” swimming philosophy that puts most of the focus on body position, the core, and energy generated from body roll. Swimming guru Bill Boomer is largely credited with this inventing the approach, which Terry Laughlin, through his Total Immersion books, videos and workshops, has elevated into regular triathlon household banter.

“I think Terry Laughlin is great,” Taormina says. “He’s made swimming accessible to so many people. But I feel that the pendulum has swung to far when it comes to the emphasis on body position and roll.” So much so, Taormina says, she doesn’t even bring up the body core in her writing. “The topic is completely covered,” she says.

Taormina believes the attention to the pull, and in the joy of being obsessed with the finer techniques in swimming, helped her achieve the seemingly impossible. She qualified for her first Olympic team in 1996—winning a gold medal on the 4 x 200m relay team— at the age of 27. This launched the even more improbable run over the subsequent Games as she leveraged her swimming power into multi-sport: She went on to make Olympic teams in 2000 (triathlon), 2004 (triathlon) and 2008 (modern pentathlon). Taormina is the only woman ever to complete in three different sports over multiple Olympiads.

Taormina has since become dedicated, in teaching clinics and through her books, to recalibrate the conversation when it comes to swim technique.

“There is this belief that pervades the triathlon world that swimming fast should be easy,” Taormina says, commenting on how a central focus of fishlike swimming is on creating a stroke that is low in energy costs. “The fact is, the core cannot generate any lift or drag.” Taormina says this might be fine for the beginner, but for the advanced triathlete who is stuck on a plateau in regards to their performance in the swim should journey into experimenting with the application of force through the underwater phase of the pull. In other words, if you want to be competitive in the swim, you’re going to have to bust some ass. It’s complicated, she says, and requires hard work to sustain good technique through the entirety of a swim leg, but the dividends, she feels, can be enormous.

So where does one start? One dry-land training tool that Taormina believes is essential to developing and refining pull mechanics is called H.E.A.T., an acronym for High Elbow Attachment Tubing. Taormina uses the Halo SPHandle, although there are other brands available.

In Swim Speed Workouts she writes, “There is no more effective practical tool for developing strength and flexibility for the underwater pull than tubing. It was my secret weapon when I trained and raced.”

Using the SPHandle to Create a Strong, High-Elbow Pull. Taormina says there are three critical checkpoints to lock in, under the tension of the tubing, before you start the pull practice.

1. Fingertips are pointed straight toward ground.

  1. The wrist is straight and flush with the forearm.
  2.  The elbow is high—the same height as shoulder.

With the three checkpoints engaged, pull back against the resistance of the tubing. On the path toward the finish, the thumb just brushes the hip. At the completion of the stroke, extend, but don’t completely straighten the arm. To see a video of Sheila demonstrating proper use of the SPHandle, click here.

For more information on Sheila, visit www.sheilat.com

T.J. Murphy is the author of Inside the Box. Follow T.J. on Twitter @burning_runner