Two-time Olympic medalist Simon Whitfield recently announced his retirement from triathlon. In this feature, originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine Whitfield and his peers talk about his career, his focus on family and what you can learn from the two-plus decades he’s been in the sport.
Simon Whitfield is triathlon’s greatest Olympian. He became the sport’s first male gold medalist in Sydney when, despite crashing on the bike, he worked his way back up to the leaders and then outran everyone in the field, outsprinting Germany’s Stefan Vuckovic in the final meters of the race. The victory stunned the pundits, with no one expecting the unknown Canadian to even be a factor.
But being the sport’s first Olympic gold medalist isn’t what makes Whitfield an icon. He earned his iconic status when he collected his second Olympic medal, a silver, in Beijing. In the eight years between Sydney and Beijing, Whitfield reinvented himself as an all-around triathlete, largely because he knew the game was changing and he could no longer fake his way through the swim and bike. In one of the highlights of his career, he led his peers out of the water at the ITU World Championships in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2008.
“I would absolutely decimate the kid I was when I was 24,” Whitfield said recently, while preparing for his fourth Olympics with the Canadian national team at a training camp in Maui.
Triathlon has been a part of Whitfield’s identity for longer than it hasn’t, with him having started the sport when he was only 11. But watch Whitfield in action, and it becomes obvious that he realizes how lucky he is to do what he does for a living—after an open-water session in Maui, he and his teammates splashed through the waves like kids, videotaping themselves as they bodysurfed. And Whitfield made it a point to spice things up for Inside Triathlon’s photographer, stopping mid-run for an unplanned portrait and throwing a coconut for the cameras.
Below, Whitfield and the people he credits with helping him along the way—his coaches, teammates, friends, mentors and wife—reminisce about the 11 years since Sydney, what it took training-wise to get him to the top and what the name “Whitfield” will mean to the sport once he finally decides to hang up his racing shoes.
On Whitfield’s early years in Australia, where he attended a high school boarding school.
Whitfield: I met Greg Bennett at a race in Australia, and I’ve looked up to him ever since. … I was very, very lucky to have Benno. And frankly I had Crowie and Macca, too. They were a couple of years older than I was, and I spent time around them when I was in a club [team] at age 21.
Greg “Benno” Bennett (An Olympian for Australia in 2004 and Whitfield’s de-facto brother while he lived in the country): I first met Simon back in 1993 at an event just north of Sydney. He had taken the train, I think, to this event and needed a lift home. I thought it was unusual that a 16- or 17-year-old kid was in Sydney on his own. I took him under my wing, I guess, for a few years as he finished high school. He was mad about triathlon. His energy for the sport was great to be around, although it was sometimes exhausting. His running ability as a teenager was something I had never witnessed before, but he couldn’t swim to save his life. He was lucky to break 1:30 for 100 meters. I still think the highlight of his career to this day is when he won the swim prime at the Kitzbühel World Cup a few years ago—talk about hard work and perseverance!
Craig “Crowie” Alexander (a two-time Ironman world champion): Simon and I met around 1994. We had both just started in the sport. He was a very accomplished schoolboy runner and I remember the first time we met, he told me his goal at the time was to run a sub-4-minute mile on the track. We trained together for a couple of seasons and traveled to races together. He was an awesome training partner.
Bennett: Those years as a high schooler at boarding school in Sydney, he was alone. I had a car and Simon didn’t, so naturally I would pick him up for swim squad at 4:45 three to four mornings a week. He was never on time, and I would sit on the horn until I woke up most of the street. Finally his head would pop out of the round window from his loft bedroom. “Sorry!” he would say. He’d then sleep in the car until swimming.