Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Whitfield sick of catch-up Add to ...

Olympic triathlon champion Simon Whitfield hadn't bargained on falling ill with food poisoning.

The most carefully plotted Olympic preparation doesn't always go according to plan.

With less than a week remaining before the opening ceremony in Greece, Whitfield is playing catch-up in his quest to defend his Olympic title.

Last Monday, two days after he won a triathlon event in Caledon, Ont., food poisoning felled him. "That threw us for a loop," coach Lance Watson said.

Whitfield is heading to the Olympic Games in Athens in much different circumstances than he did in Sydney, when he figured to be a top-10 finisher at best. He had been ranked only 13th in the world and he'd finished seventh at the world triathlon championships.

"Nobody had any expectations on me," he said. "I had expectations for me."

But his stirring, surprising, emotional victory (he sobbed uncontrollably while the Canadian anthem played) on the second competitive day of the Sydney Olympics inspired his teammates and sparked a champagne-fizzing party at Canada House that evening. Now, Canadians hope for a repeat, although Sports Illustrated has made him an underdog again. The magazine hasn't rated him in the top three.

Shortly after Sydney, Whitfield and Watson carefully plotted out their approach to the Athens Olympics. Their final three weeks before the Athens triathlon was set four years ago. They call it a training template, and it's one that has always worked for Whitfield.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes you can make in Olympic year is to try and reinvent the wheel and not take what has been successful," Watson said.

The template includes two races close to the Olympic Games, the final one a neat trick they like to use three weeks before a major event: a duathlon, where two runs are sandwiched around a bike ride. Are the gruelling races too close to a big event? Not in their eyes.

"It's perfect," said Whitfield, all slender limbs, with a skiff of wavy hair that looks like a permanent laurel wreath. "We're following the same plan we used to go to Sydney. I operate on a lot of racing, to finely tune that top-end fitness.

"I've done an incredible couple of months of training, now I do the racing and we're finished."

Today(Saturday), Whitfield is hoping that his stomach has settled enough for him to take on some crack U.S. athletes at a duathlon in Atlanta. Matched up with U.S. duathlon champ Greg Watson, known for his powerful runs, and British duathlete Martin Yelling, who can run 10 kilometres in less than half an hour, Whitfield is bound to get a good test.

He knows this is necessary because Spanish world medalist Ivan Rana and Australian veteran Peter Robertson tend to blast out of the blocks, hard, on the running portion of the triathlon. Whitfield knows he has to outpace them to win.

Currently, Whitfield is known as one of the strongest runners in the world. That title used to fall to Leandro Macedo of Brazil, the winner at the 1995 Pan American Games and a bronze medalist at the 1996 world championships. As a kid, Whitfield asked the Brazilian for help. Now, Whitfield leaves him in his dust.

"He's amazing," Macedo said. "I've been training with him for eight weeks. He's strong mentally and physically. I used to be one of the fastest guys in 1996, 1998, but now he's amazing. I can't believe he does that."

But last week, the slender 29-year-old from Kingston intended to focus on his swimming skills. Swimming is Whitfield's nemesis. He scrambled out of the water in only 27th place at Sydney and picked up only three places during the cycling portion. In Caledon, he wasn't happy with his swim, intending to be among the top three at the first marker. Instead, he found himself 20th. Eventually, he worked himself back up to seventh place.

Watson said last week that he intended to put Whitfield through six tough swimming drills in four days, but the plan dissolved because of the illness. Whitfield said his swimming is "incomparably better" than it was four years ago, but then, his competitors have improved, too.

"It seems that every year you make up 15 seconds on the pack, they improve by 14," he said.

After the Atlanta event, Whitfield will fly to Geneva to prepare for the Olympics, while other athletes are already checking into the Olympic Village. Watson said Whitfield will spend some time in Geneva recovering from jet lag, and he might compete in a sprint race. He'll try to get in more swimming. "The swim may dictate his success in Athens," Watson said.

The Athens course requires athletes to cycle up a steep hill after they emerge from the water. If Whitfield gets behind in the swim, some strong cyclists make a break from the pack on the hill and Whitfield can't make up ground, it might be tough to come back, Watson said.

Whitfield still hasn't decided whether he will take part in the opening ceremony. He and Watson will evaluate the idea after his Atlanta race, based on his efforts.

"He's had a couple of curves [thrown at him]with the Edmonton World Cup cancelled and getting sick," Watson said. "It's cost some key training, so we may need to have him based somewhere where he can train."

The stay in Geneva will allow Whitfield to avoid the hype and stay calm and focused on his final training preparation leading up to the men's triathlon on Aug. 26, Watson said. "We will try and keep this as close to a normal race experience as possible," he added. "You know - swim, bike, run as hard as you can. Nothing more. Nothing less."

Whitfield said he's not focusing on winning again. He thinks only of being prepared properly. He handles pressure by preparing and he's spent months doing it with gusto. He's lived through 5:30 mornings and four-hour bike rides in 40-degree heat during a six-week training camp in Penticton, B.C.

During the camp, Watson said the temperatures rose higher than 40 for a couple of days - prime preparation for the stifling heat of Athens. Whitfield has also been working with heat acclimation expert Dr. Gordon Sleivert, who asked the athlete to swallow pills with a radio transmitter in them. Once inside, the pill's contents measure his core temperature.

"We would try to get his core temperature up over 38.5 degrees for five consecutive days," Watson said.

Whitfield admitted that swallowing what he calls "horse pills" wasn't the favourite part of his training. "Those bloody pills, they're terrible," he said. "But Dr. Sleivert does a great job. You have to pay attention to details."

Watson thinks Whitfield is in the best shape of his career, and he still has a few weeks of work left. It might be just enough.


In the know

Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular