Lance Watson recalls waiting for a triathlon to start on a summer’s day in 2001, less than a year after Simon Whitfield won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
A six-year-old was riding his bike and said “Look at me Dad, I’m Simon, I’m Simon.”
“After Sydney, Whitfied was a household name,” said Watson, who coached Whitfield and the national team in 2000. “I’d like to think we’re so clever we would have produced other champions but in all seriousness, as a coach (Whitfield’s) one of those athletes that comes along once or twice in your career. The sport exploded in Canada after (Sydney) in terms of mass participation and awareness.”
Whitfield, now 38, declared his official retirement on Tuesday. But his impact on the sport and on athletics in Canada is immeasurable.
“As far as triathlon goes, (Sydney in 2000) legitimized our sport in two ways,” Watson said. “He legitimized it in the eyes of the public, and brought it A-level government funding because we were among the sport’s world class.”
After a summer season in which Whitfield turned down the chance to run half and full Ironman races, he is re-focusing on his career in new media and will head Fantan Group’s new sports entertainment division in Victoria, on a cross-media project with Rogers Media. The triathlon community can forgive Whitfield for not pursuing long-distance races as he said he might. After all, where would the sport of triathlon be in Canada if not for Simon?
“I wish I could have had two parellal careers. One short course, the other long. I’ll always have a regret I didn’t race (Ironman) as a pro, it’s such a huge part of our sport,” Whitfield told the News.
In a public release earlier this week Whitfield explained his new direction to go with a tie instead of tri.
“(This) marks the end of my career as a professional athlete; it’s been an incredible journey and an amazing chapter in my life. I grew up dreaming of representing Canada at the Olympic Games, though I never imagined I would have the honour of wearing the maple leaf four times, winning (gold and silver) Olympic medals, and bearing the flag.”
Canada’s flag bearer in London is citing his venture into a new division of sports media of which they will announce in a few months, Fantan said.
Whitfield leaves one heck of a legacy among the very highest in Canadian sport. In addition to his Olympic gold in 2000 he won Olympic silver in 2008, gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, 12 Canadian championships and 14 world cup victories.
He brought the sport to Canadians in way that we may never be able to appreciate, because he transcends the sport, says former roommate and national teammate Kelly Guest.
“The theatre of triathlon in Canada is 90 per cent related to Simon’s success,” Guest said. “What he did in Sydney brought it to the greater public. On a social level, people (learned) what it was, that triathlon didn’t have any equestrian or archery elements to it.”
Whitfield started with the Kids of Steel youth triathlon race in his hometown of Kingston, Ont., and the same organization reported sell-outs and wait-lists across Canada after each of his successes.
Like Watson, a leading triathlon coach and an owner with Saanich’s LifeSport Coaching, Guest makes a full-time living as a local triathlon coach with Kelly’s Kids, an introductory program for youth, the provincial B.C. team and with under-23 athletes.
Guest moved to Victoria in 1999 as part of the fledgling national team with Whitfield, Brent McMahon and Watson, the coach. Together they helped redefine high performance training in Canada.
If you look at Whitfield’s career trajectory, he was an elite contender from 1996 to 2012, Guest said.
“Before the gold in Sydney, nobody outside of the triathlon community in Victoria and his hometown of Kingston really knew who Whitfield was. He was top-10 at a world championship in 1996. Few athletes have a career that consistent, it’s the (triathlon) equivalent of a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky.
“People don’t typically sit down and watch triathlon, but if you look at Jordan and Gretzky, they changed the way other elite players played the game, and so did Whitfield. We had leading triathletes from the world coming here to train with us.”