Canadian’s across the country took Olympic Champion Simon Whitfield’s news of his official retirement yesterday with heavy hearts. After winning a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia, Simon used his relentless drive to deliver another memorable performance and win a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and be chosen as flag bearer for the 2012 Olympic Games. The National Post’s Bruce Arthur looks at Simon’s legacy:
Me, I’ll remember Beijing. I’ll remember being cooked in the heat at the Ming’s Tomb Reservoir, watching Simon Whitfield shimmer in the heat haze, a mirage, a vanishing man. I will remember thinking it was over, and that his coach thought it was over, and that the four men ahead of him were younger and stronger and pulling away. One kilometre to go, more or less. Nice try.
“I had one of those ridiculous conversations you have in your head when you’re competing,” Whitfield says over the phone from Victoria. “They dropped me about four times, and I kept running back, and when they dropped me the last time in the spillway I remember thinking, yeah, well, none of them have kids. And I already have a medal. I’m good.”
He will remember Sydney first, though, because it was the first Olympic triathlon, and the one where he got to stand on the podium and hear the anthem, way back at the start of the journey that officially ended Tuesday with a quiet announcement on his Web site, a goodbye. After the disaster at the London Olympics Whitfield had talked about trying Ironman, of trying different races. But he is 38, and he has been one of this nation’s defining athletes, and now it’s over.
“I wanted to do Ironman, my ego wanted to do Ironman, but my heart wasn’t in it,” he says. “I respect too much what it takes, and how much commitment it takes, and how selfish you have to be. I want to spend more time with my kids; when I’m there, I want to be more engaged, I don’t want to be worried that I’ll be sore at the park from swinging Pippa around, or climbing on the monkey bars. It trumped it. It was not even a contest.”
His daughters, Pippa and Evelyn, are his focus now, and he is trying to fill some of those other hours, to replace what he has lost. Triathlon Canada has not been interested in working with Whitfield; he has been willing to speak his mind his entire career, from his planning for Beijing to defending Paula Findlay in London, and he doesn’t fit.
“It’s the strangest thing, and it totally baffles me, but it’s been a blessing, because it’s forced me to go outside that, and do it myself,” he says. “I’d probably be involved in more of those petty little brawls over high performance. We obviously don’t see eye to eye, and that’s their prerogative, but it’s disappointing.”
So he has joined The Fantan Group, a company which runs events and puts a lot of smart people into rooms, as their director of sports — he has a project with Rogers in the works. He is involved in coaching, in a mobile bike shop that was launched in Vancouver, in a clothing company. He does a lot of paddleboarding, and lately he has been paddling through the fog that has blanketed parts of the West Coast for the last week, filled with wonder as the colossal cargo ships slip by.
But he has not raced since he hit that speed bump at the beginning of the bike course in London, after the swim of his life. He had reconfigured his running capacity with deep barrels of work, but doesn’t think he could have kept up with the young men who delivered sub-30-minute 10K runs to reach the podium. He just would have tried.
“I wouldn’t have been able to handle that day,” he says. “Maybe top 10.”
He never found out, though. Most of Canada only saw Simon Whitfield race four times in all those years, if that. He visited hundreds of schools over the years, won races all over the world, gave speeches and made appearances, but for most of Canada he existed four times, when the Olympics came. In Sydney gold was so unexpected that Canadian reporters had to jump on buses to get there and cover it. In Athens, his preparation was ragged, and he finished 11th.
Then came Beijing, and the comeback in the Ming’s Tomb spillway, where the heat radiated and shimmered. As the lead group pulled away he thought about how maybe medals weren’t everything, but he remembered watching the tape of his Sydney win during a school visit, sitting on a gymnasium floor, and being struck by how casually he had crossed the line, and how he didn’t want to do that again. He had watched rower Adam Kreek bellow out the anthem during the men’s eights’ medal ceremony, and he had written Sing Like Kreek on his handlebars, and he threw off his hat and told himself to shut up and run. Sing Like Kreek, he told himself. Sing Like Kreek.
“I thought, what matters here is not winning medals,” he says. “I thought, just let it all go.”
And he passed the two highest-ranked triathletes in the world. He passed everyone. With 200 metres to go, he was in the lead, his fine heart singing. And he didn’t have quite enough, and he finished with a silver, and it was still one of the greatest things I have ever seen. That is what I’ll remember first.
After that he had a second daughter and grew older, and London was like reaching for the far side of the moon. The swim was good, and he reached for his shoe at the wrong moment, and he crashed. He never raced again. He is truly at peace with it, though. It was just a part of the whole great path he burned. He makes speed bump jokes now.
So the last thing Simon Whitfield did as a triathlete was walk over to the side of the road, leaving bloody footprints behind. There was a little Irish girl there, Rosie. She was six, dark hair, crying, and he heard her and limped over. Whitfield told her softly that it was OK. He said he had a daughter about her age; her favourite book was The Paper Bag Princess. What was Rosie’s? Maybe she liked Dora The Explorer? She did. Rosie stopped crying. Whitfield didn’t cry until long after he’d been stitched up. After that, sometime, he let it all go.
As an athlete Simon Whitfield has vanished into the fog, but before he did he showed us possibility. He showed us that winning wasn’t everything, and that losing wasn’t, either. Hell of a Canadian. Hell of a man. He made us better.