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COLUMNISTS

Fri, August 27, 2004

Defence not so simple for Simon


ATHENS -- One day he may come back here with his children to Vouligagme and the Oceanida Beach area.

One day he may take them on a walk to a hill and show them the exact spot where it happened, where he became former Olympic champion Simon Whitfield.

He's much more likely to take them to the exact spot behind the Opera House where he reeled in Stephan Vuckovic of Germany and blew him away to win Canada's first gold medal and manufacture a great moment in Canadian sport four years ago in Sydney.

HISTORY GOT AWAY

This was a day for letting history get away.

"I thought about it the night before. Canada has never had an Olympic gold medal defended. I gave myself a little taste of what it would be like to defend as Olympic champion and got excited and missed the opportunity.

"I saw it go away," said Whitfield after finishing 11th and watching Hamish Carter of New Zealand become the second gold-medal winner in men's triathlon in Olympic history.

"It was sort of a rookie mistake. I let the pack go. I made a tactical error. I probably should have and probably could have rode up. Could've, would've, should've ... that doesn't really work, does it? It slipped away.

"I missed that opportunity. If I left with my old training partner Greg Bennett up that hill ... I didn't. It slipped away and there's not much I could do about it. The beauty of 20-20 hindsight is that I would have gone with him and who knows ..."

While Whitfield was speaking, coach Lance Watson stood out of sight behind a fence a few feet away.

"I had some tears," he said of taking a moment for himself. "There's a little sadness for me."

Whitfield may have his private little sob later when he gets used to the idea that his life, which changed so dramatically that day in Sydney, has changed again.

But this day he had enough time to get used to the idea of his fate as he finished 2:08.08 behind Carter and his countryman Bevan Docherty, who finished one-two.

Triathlon is not the most likely of sports for it to happen. Like downhill skiing, there are about a dozen guys who can win and so much depends on the course and the conditions.

"It was a strong man's course and I'm not the strongest man," admitted Whitfield.

It wasn't a total downer of a day.

"First of all it was a thrill to walk out onto the pontoon for the start of the race and be announced as defending Olympic champion," said the 29-year-old native of Kingston, Ont., who now calls Victoria home.

"I got beat. But what do you do? I got beat by one of my best friends. It makes it a little less bitter."

His friend was over the moon.

"I can't believe it, man. I'm so stoked. Today was my day. What a dream come true," said Carter.

Whitfield had a sensational start in the swim, but by the time he came out of the water he was back in his usual 36th-place position.

"I worked too hard on my start and not on my finish," he said.

On the bike, as usual, he made up a lot of ground and time in a hurry. After the first lap he'd moved up 15 spots and 15 seconds.

"I kept driving for it," he said.

"When I was 30 seconds back, I told myself, 'That's not a lot of time to make up. I'm the champ. I can go get 'em.' "

But then he let his Olympic hopes go away.

Bennett decided to break away from Whitfield and the rest of the second pack and go catch the first.

"I thought, 'No way!' " said Whitfield who gambled that the pack would come back to him, and lost.

When the first pack split into two, it left Whitfield suddenly in a third pack. Effectively his shot at gold was gone.

"Our group got discouraged. I had that opportunity and left it up the hill."

He went from 18 seconds behind the leaders after one lap to 29 behind after two, 55 behind after three, 1:26 behind after four and 1:54 behind after five.

While he moved from 17th to 11th place on the run, his day was done and he knew it long before he got off the bike.

Whitfield had a lot of high-class company behind him. Dmitriy Gaag of Kazakhstan, No.-1 ranked in the world going into the Olympics, finished 25th, one spot behind Peter Robinson of Australia, who three years before won the Edmonton 2001 World Triathlon Championship and followed with another one last year.

HE'LL BE BACK

Whitfield didn't hem and haw about his future.

"I'll take a six-month sabbatical," he said of establishing his organic farm on the Gulf Islands.

"I'll be back. I'll do another Olympics for sure," he said.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to look at a four-year-old gold medal ... "The best part of being an Olympic champion was seeing kids' eyes light up when they touched that medal."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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