Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A city inspired by a folk-hero triathlete

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 20, 2008


The city's tribe of triathletes gathered in small groups to watch one of their own race against the world's best.

At Saanich Commonwealth Place, spectators found a spot in the bleachers above the race pool.

Across town, Jennie Sprigings and her 14-month-old daughter, Pippa, joined friends at a Fairfield home.

The girl's father had a race to run.

It was 10 a.m. Tuesday in China and 7 p.m. Monday back home in Victoria, where Simon Whitfield has become a familiar midday sight running along the Dallas Road waterfront while pushing his daughter in a stroller.

Eight years ago, the boyish athlete was an unknown figure in a fringe sport.

That changed when a gutsy sprint brought him to the finish line at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. On television, Don Wittman, now sadly lost to cancer, shouted his full name like a mantra: “Here comes Simon Whitfield of Canada! … Simon Whitfield takes the lead! … Simon Whitfield has done it!” The gold medal made Mr. Whitfield a folk hero.

He tried again four years later in Athens, finishing 11th.

He tried yet again in Beijing, the one-time undisciplined party boy now a 33-year-old father with his share of responsibilities. Among those is being a role model for a growing sport.

Triathlon comes with a philosophy: It is not just a sport, it's a way of life. Competitive, to be sure, but comradeship is important, too.

It has roots in California and not surprisingly has found fertile soil on the Canadian West Coast.

On the television screen, skinny men in goggles prepared to plunge into the glassy water of the Ming Tomb Reservoir outside Beijing.

The Olympic motto of citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger) is supplemented in triathlon by splash, mash and dash.

The sport at the Games begins with a 1.5-kilometre swim (splash) followed by a 40-kilometre bicycle ride (mash) followed by a 10-km run (dash).

The crowd at the pool in Victoria waved flags as the race began. As it turned out, the 56 competitors outnumbered the 39 spectators in the bleachers. Ann Carmichael, the pool's aquatic programmer, invited the public to cheer for athletes as familiar as neighbours to many in the city. She did not want to watch at home.

“It's okay to be jumping up and down in your living room,” she said, “but there's no one to hug.”

Armed with a cowbell, she rang it every time Mr. Whitfield appeared on screen.

He emerged from the water in 22nd place.

The athletes have two transitions between the three disciplines. They toss aside goggles and bathing caps, slip on bike shoes and caps. The pit stop is like a quick costume change.

Once on bikes, Mr. Whitfield had assistance from Canadian teammate Colin Jenkins, 25, who moved to Victoria three years ago. It was Mr. Jenkins' assignment to act as Mr. Whitfield's domestique, a role that, unfortunately, does not involve vacuuming. His job was to aid his partner by cycling ahead, creating a slipstream in which the other could draft.

Among those watching at the pool back home was Dan Dunaway, a tugboat operator who celebrated his 60th birthday last year by participating in the Penticton Ironman triathlon. The Sydney Olympics made him a fan of Mr. Whitfield.

“I just love his youthful energy and his exuberance,” he said.

Mr. Whitfield hopped off his bicycle in 12th place.

He replaced his helmet with a white visor.

He began moving through the chase pack.

Back in Victoria, Ms. Sprigings and friends cheered heartily.

It has been a year of strict discipline at the Whitfield-Sprigings household.

“No beer in the fridge. No ice cream in the freezer,” she said.

As the clock ticked past 8:30 p.m., a daughter stayed up past her usual bedtime. How could she sleep with so much screaming?

In China, Mr. Whitfield faded. The lead runners pulled away.

He tossed aside his visor and picked up his pace.

“Sing like Kreek,” he thought to himself. If he finished first, he would get to belt out O Canada, as did the rower Adam Kreek.

He caught up to the leaders.

Then, he passed them.

He led around a circle of flower pots heading into the straightaway to the finish line.

He was a football field away from another gold medal.

About halfway, a German runner sprinted past to clutch the tape at the finish line before collapsing.

Six seconds later, Mr. Whitfield crossed, bending at his hip to catch his breath. He did not run one more step than necessary.

He had won a silver medal.

They cheered like mad at the Commonwealth Pool, where Mr. Whitfield and other Olympians have swum countless laps.

After he got his medal, he held it up to the camera and spoke to his daughter.

“Pippa, you have something to play with at home,” he said.

Almost eight minutes later, Mr. Jenkins approached the finish line, hopping and skipping and waving to the grandstand with both hands. The domestique was the last competitor to officially straggle across, but it was hard to believe that any were happier than he was.

At the Victoria pool, sweaty spectators celebrated by cheering, hugging and clanging cowbells. The breathtaking conclusion felt like an aerobic workout.

Alexa Bryant, 9, pronounced her hero's performance “amazing.”

As for herself, she proclaimed her desire to compete in the Olympics.

Maybe in 2020.

“It's a dream for me,” she said. “I'd like to make it happen.”

The idea does not seem ridiculous. After all, she shares a pool with champions.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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