VOULIAGMENI, Greece—It ended with a whimper, but don't attribute it to weakness, lack of will or frailty.
That's not Sheila Taormina's style.
She showed no signs of disappointment Wednesday afternoon over what everyone else viewed as a disappointing 23rd-place finish in the women's triathlon. In fact, the 33-year-old Taormina, ignored the pain ripping through both of her legs, saying she was actually excited.
"I'm so excited this is my last competition," said Taormina, a native of Livonia, Mich. "All I want people to say is, 'Congratulation on your retirement.'"
The men's triathlon takes place Thursday on the same course, where Longwood's Hunter Kemper is among the favorites.
After Taormina's first-place win at the world championships last year, she entered Wednesday's race as one of the favorites. She was among the leaders for most of the race, but pain struck both of her legs during the cycling portion of the triathlon.
In the final minutes of the run the third leg of the triathlon, which consists of a 1,500-meter swim, 25-mile bicycle ride and a six-mile run -- Taormina dropped from among the front-runners to deep in the pack. She settled for one of the worst finishes in her career, finishing in 2:09:21-- 4:37 behind the winner, Austria's Kate Allen.
Taormina, a three-time Olympian, said muscle spasms shuddered through both of her calves and hamstrings.
"It seemed so good for the first few laps, like 'Dang, maybe we'll come off with a big lead and run,'" she said. "Then the cramps. It wasn't even cramps; it was charley horses."
They hit during the cycling portion. By that point, Taormina had already established herself as a legitimate threat for the gold. She had finished the swim in 18:37, tied with Australian Loretta Harrop for the lead.
Harrop pulled slightly ahead in the cycling, but Taormina was within striking distance. She was in second place, 18 seconds behind Harrop heading into the run.
The bicycle route had a difficult hill with two inclines, the first about 440 meters long and the second, which was a bit steeper, about 300 meters.
In Clermont, where the American team trained earlier this month, U.S. triathlon coach Gale Bernhardt said there are "some good hills, but nothing like here."
Taormina said the pain was so severe, she stopped pedaling at times, even considered dropping out of the race. She didn't know where the pain came from and said the only other time she'd felt anything similar was during her first triathlon five years ago in South Africa.
"When your body can't go, your body can't go," said Taormina, who was trying to become the first female athlete to win gold in two different sports. She was a part of a first-play U.S. swimming relay team at the 1996 Games.
Taormina kept pedaling and was in third place after the cycling; U.S. teammate Barb Lindquist, the top-ranked triathlete in the world, had taken over second. During the run, Taormina started off fine. She was running in third place entering the final of three laps, about one minute off the pace.
That's when the pain became too much, and competitor after competitor began to pass her including Austria's Allen, a relative unknown in the triathlon world.
Harrop, of Australia, had led most of the race and midway through the run, appeared to have locked up the gold medal. But after more than 33 minutes of running, Allen, who trailed by as much as 1:45, had sneaked her way through the field.
In dramatic fashion, she passed Harrop with about 100 yards remaining in the 10-kilometer run. Almost as surprising was the third-place finisher. American Susan Williams, ranked No. 33 in the world and No. 5 in the United States, took the bronze, finishing in 2:05:08.
During the first event, Williams had run her bicycle into a barricade and crashed to the ground. She jumped right back up, though.
"That says a lot about Susan's will," said Bernhardt, the coach.
Williams has bounced back before. Four years ago, she had to take a break from triathlon. The day before she was to compete in a trial for the 2000 Olympics, Williams learned she was pregnant.
She missed the Summer Games in Australia and soon gave birth to her first daughter.
She named her Sydney.
"I like to say she's my gold medal," Williams said.