Fri, September 20, 2013

Horribly sad ending for Canada's Simon Whitfield

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency


Canadian Simon Whitfield has pulled out of the London Games after crashing during the bike portion of today's triathlon. (REUTERS)


He didn't know how many stitches he had. He was too busy watching the last triathlon of his Olympic career on a television screen from a medical tent in Hyde Park to count.

And by then, he was already out the race that made his name and has been his athletic life.

This was the horribly sad ending for Simon Whitfield, gold-medal winner, silver-medal winner, Canadian flag bearer, and soon to be former Olympian. This was the great goodbye that didn't go his way. The triathlon went on -- only it continued without one of its former champions.

The first Olympic champion in this wonderful Olympic sport, reduced to aching and slightly angry spectator.

"I have bumps and bruises in odds spots," Whitfield said, explaining his medical condition post triathlon. In truth, almost everything hurt. His big toe was throbbing from the stitches, the number of which remains a mystery. He had gashes on his legs. His collarbone was sore. And when asked to explain exactly what happened in his Olympic swan song, he really couldn't answer.

"I don't really know," said Whitfield. "I've got a goose egg at the back of my head."

But he knew. He sort of knew. And that was part of what made the day so difficult and emotional and crushing for him. He needed a swim of his life to begin the triathlon in any kind of contention and somehow this 37-year-old managed almost a swim, by his standards, for the ages. When he got on his bike, it was with the supreme confidence that this could be his day -- that he could contend one more time for Olympic hardware.

Only that thought didn't last very much longer.

He was trying to get his foot into the shoes that are attached to the pedals of his bike, trying that desperate dance every triathlete must administer, when somehow he didn't see the speed bump coming. Either he didn't see it, or he didn't manoeuvre himself for it. He didn't get his foot in his shoes, lost his balance, was losing his bike ride and may have been clipped from behind, sending him crashing to the pavement.

He got to his feet. Tried to get back on his bike.

"I wanted to keep going but my bike was in pieces and my legs and foot was gashed up pretty good. There was no way," he said. "I was right there in it. You train four years for this and unfortunately it happens.

"I guess it's the law of averages. Eventually you're going to hit one of those. You race enough. You get in enough races. I've had two pretty great races in Olympics, and one pretty good race. And I've had that race." Meaning his last one. The ending no one wanted.

Whitfield didn't have anything to prove here, didn't have to win any medals to be thought of one of Canada's great Olympic athletes. But he wanted to go out on his own terms. He wanted to finish the damn thing and see where his body might take him.

Instead, he needed some time after the fall, time with the medical staff, time to be with his wife, time to be with his family, time to collect his thoughts: He has been wearing Canadian colours proudly for almost so many years. He thought his way through the combination of swimming, cycling and running a million different times. This ending was never part of the story. No athlete ever thinks of disaster.

"It's just a stupid speed bump," he said. A stupid speed bump that ended his Olympic career.

And underneath the stands, there was his first hug in his new life as husband and dad. "My breakdown moment was seeing my wife, because I know how much Jennie's puts into this," he said. "We're a team and she's put in so much sacrifice. So that was the hardest part."

His wife squeezed him so tight and the two shed a tear or two but Whitfield flinched for just a moment. His collarbone hurts that much. "But you can still drink beer with your right hand, right?," his wife said to him.

"We had a good laugh at that."

He needed a good laugh. But it only hurt when he breathed. A hurt that won't go away quickly. He has been first at the Olympics and Tuesday he was last.

"You put your life into this," Simon Whitfield said. And that chapter of his life, as Canadian athlete and smiling ambassador, deserved a better ending than this.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve