Author Tags: Sports
Born in Victoria in 1956, Dheensaw published Island of Champions (Orca, 1988), a history of sport on Vancouver Island, as well as Lacrosse 100: One Hundred Years of Lacrosse in B.C. (Orca, 1990), Celebrate the Spirit: The Olympic Games (Orca, 1996), with Deanna Binder, Olympics 100: Canada at the Summer Games (Orca, 1996) and Simon Says Gold: Simon Whitfield's Pursuit of Athletic Excellence (Orca, 2009), with Simon Whitfield.
[BCBW 2009] "Sport"
Simon Says Gold: Simon Whitfield’s Pursuit of Athletic Excellence (Orca $14)
from Louise Donnelly
By all accounts it was a bright but cool September morning. While the first crush of Olympic athletes crowded into an old yellow school bus, a surprisingly jitter-free Simon Whitfield held back. He’d had a great night’s sleep. He was loose, confident, and blessedly unburdened by fame or expectation.
Spying a second transport vehicle, he boarded the “luxurious” cruiser bus with only a few other triathloners and rode to the ferry terminal in relaxing comfort. Once there, while most competitors stood shivering on the ferry dock, Whitfield and Germany’s Stephan Vuckovic spied a shelter building with two chairs.
With little more than Waltzing Matilda running through Whitfield’s head, they waited out the ferry’s arrival in warmth and pleasant isolation.
In the fifty-man starting line-up, 25-year-old Whitfield maintained his sense of ease and light-heartedness. Fifteen hundred metres of swimming, forty kilometres of bike riding and ten kilometres of running – the three taskmasters of the triathlon loomed ahead.
Never mind that it was his first Olympics and the first time his sport would be part of the Olympics. Whitfield joked to the guy next to him that he hoped when they jumped into the Sydney harbour, the sharks didn’t get them. Top-ranked New Zealander Hamish Carter, already crowned by the New Zealand media and under daunting pressure, threw Whitfield a startled, disbelieving get-away-from-me look.
Whitfield emerged from that first swimming event shark-bite free and relatively pleased with his twenty-seventh position. The height of his fledgling career was a bronze medal the year before in the 1999 Pan American Games. It was nothing anybody was writing home about, certainly not the international press.
The little-known Canadian, carrying nothing more than a private “deep and burning ambition,” found himself at the back of the lead pack of the cyclists, only to skid moments later into a tangle of downed cyclists.
Fortune again smiled. Whitfield survived the crash and finished the cycling portion of the race at number seventeen. Buoyed with “reservoirs of energy,” Whitfield began to push through the runners. Running was his strength, the ability he developed through years of soccer and track in high school and, as others fell back, he just seemed to “flow forward.”
With the finish line in sight, Whitfield began to sprint, gaining on his only opponent, the powerful Vuckovic—his shelter partner from the ferry dock—and, with less than a hundred metres to go, he flew past the spent German runner, breasted the tape and earned his Olympic glory.
As a kid Whitfield had grown up in Kingston, Ontario, obsessed over Dungeons & Dragons until he became a straight-C student. He became equally obsessed in the late ’80s with the new sport of triathlon. This kid, who took himself to Sydney, Australia, his dad’s old hometown, to finish high school with the vague hope that some of Australia’s famed athletic prowess would rub off on him, somehow eventually won gold in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
In the new young adult biography Simon Says Gold: Simon Whitfield’s Pursuit of Athletic Excellence (Orca $14) Whitfield and his co-author Cleve Dheensaw, a veteran sportswriter with the Victoria Times Colonist, also recount Whitfield’s heart-breaking eleventh-place finish in Athens in 2004, then his triumphant climb to silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Looking back to his Kingston upbringing, after five years of racing on the Ontario Kids of Steel circuit, Whitfield had placed sixteenth overall at the 1992 Canadian Junior Triathlon Championships and had the sudden thought, I can do this.
Unfortunately he didn’t perform as well scholastically. School wasn’t the highest priority. Then, through a connection of his father’s, Whitfield was accepted to Knox Grammar School in the northern suburbs of Sydney. In the headmaster’s mahogany-and-dark-leather office, Whitfield learned he would be expected to become city running champ by graduation.
Aghast, he called his father and reported he was also required to break all the school’s middle distance records in the next two years. His father tersely replied, “Well, then break them.”
This was Whitfield’s introduction to the Aussie “take no prisoners” approach to sports.
Whitfield’s mother could be tough, too. At one race, before he left for Australia, an aunt retrieved a forgotten bike helmet for him but his mother was less indulgent. She let her son discover for himself that the chain had come off his bike.
“I chose to stand back, actually behind a tree, to watch how Simon was going to deal with the situation,” she recalls. Simon got the chain back on and, with greasy hands, got right back into the race.
Nobody sets out to raise an Olympian, Whitfield says, but it doesn’t hurt to have support at home. “I had that in spades from both my mom and dad.”
Whitfield also credits his “relentless drive” to his maternal grandmother who, at ninety-six, and living just across the harbour at a nursing home, watched his Sydney victory on TV.
Whitfield jokes that although she
hadn’t run a step in years, that day his Nana did “three laps of the cribbage table and a cartwheel on the shuffleboard track.”
In 1996, after a sprint-finish win at the Canadian Duathlon Championships against Peter Reid, who’d later win three Ironman Hawaii world titles at Kona, Whitfield moved to Victoria on Reid’s recommendation.
In 2002, at the local triathlon club, Whitfield met his future wife, Jennie. That same year he crashed at the World Cup race at Geelong, Australia, and broke his collarbone and both wrists. He recovered in time to win gold at the Manchester Commonwealth Games and then fell to a stunning forty-ninth finish three months later at the World Championships in Cancun.
Whitfield was also devastated by the news that his friend and fellow triathlete Kelly Guest had a positive drug test. Guest was later diagnosed with a rare condition that triggered the positive test and had nothing to do with taking a banned substance.
Whitfield’s Olympic gold medal was beginning to “weigh me down.” He felt burdened with the pressures of defending his supremacy and disputing the whispers of “One-Hit Wonder.” He became the “guy with the target on his back.”
Leading up to the 2004 Summer Olympics, everything went wrong. Whitfield chose to train in Penticton, where the dry terrain mimicked the conditions around Athens. But he’d never trained away from a home base before. “We got away from our core principles. We over-analyzed everything… we knew it all. We insulated ourselves from everyone.”
He did poorly in the swim portion of the race, lacking the strength to keep up the pace. He got trapped between two packs in the bike race, a rookie mistake. When the running became painful, he “gave up” and pretty much strolled across the finish line for eleventh place.
“Everyone,” Whitfield says, “became an instant expert. Axes came out. Lines blurred between friends.
“Were they helping with one hand while holding the axes behind their backs with the other?”
In retrospect, Whitfield says Athens was the best thing that could have happened to him professionally. The crushing defeat forced him to step back and rediscover the joy of the sport.
It didn’t happen overnight, but things began to move in the right direction. He and Jennie had a daughter. Home life became a priority. Race results improved and he was ranked number two overall in the world by 2007.
Whitfield weathered the controversy of using a team approach in individual racing sports. Colin Jenkins, fast in swimming and cycling, would pace Whitfield, keeping him “in touch with the lead groups” in the race’s first two sections. So although Jenkins was not the third-ranked triathlete in Canada, Triathlon Canada added him to the Olympic team heading for Beijing in 2008. The pair took along their own cook, too.
On race day, only a last-minute kick in the final fifty metres by Germany’s Jan Frodeno turned the possibility of a vindicating gold to a still-respectable and hard-earned silver.
In June of this year Whitfield turned the tables on Frodeno and picked up the $200,000 win at the ITU Elite Cup in Des Moines, Iowa. While the prize money in the richest annual triathlon had everyone buzzing, Whitfield, ever the competitor, says besting Frodeno in yet another sprint finish was the best prize of all.
Whitfield continues to train for the 2012 Olympics. He has some surprisingly simple advice for young athletes. Swim. Cycle. Run. Don’t overcomplicate things. Don’t get sidetracked with sports-science. Don’t get caught up with training gadgets and gimmicks.
Whitfield’s philosophy boils down to three words: Speed, Speed, Speed. “Go to a park,” he says. “Kick a soccer ball and chase it as fast as you can. Make a game of it. Have fun. Speed comes.”
Cleve Dheensaw, a Victoria native, has covered six Commonwealth and Olympic Games. He is also the author of The Commonwealth Games: The First 60 Years, 1930-1990 and, with Deanna Binder, Celebrate the Spirit: The Olympic Games. 978-1-55469-141-8
-- review by Louise Donnelly