Simon Whitfield is dashing around the perimeter of an elementary school gymnasium. Arms circling like windmills, he mimes the front crawl as he travels the length of the room, then turns and straps on a pretend helmet and pedals an imaginary bicycle, then sprints back to where he started. About 100 children cheer wildly.
This is how Whitfield recruits the next Simon Whitfield.
After four Olympic Games, two Olympic medals, 14 World Cup victories, 10 Canadian championship titles, and most recently a crushing disqualification at the London Games after crashing his bike – Whitfield, 37, has turned his focus toward the grassroots development of the sport that he’s loved since his first triathlon at age 11.
“I do a lot of school visits, and that was the fastest ever,” Whitfield insists after finishing second behind the only other imaginary-triathlon racer, a boy selected from the crowd of 6- to 10-year-olds.
Here at Rene Gordon Elementary Health and Wellness Academy in Toronto, Whitfield is relaxed, affable, attentive to the media, and not afraid to look a bit silly, all while keeping an eye on his 5- and 2-year-old daughters, the youngest in a princess costume and pink boots, who accompanied him from his home in Victoria.
He’s the kind of likeable, accomplished ambassador that Triathlon Canada needs to help expand its base after a difficult Olympic year, and Whitfield wants to help. But that doesn’t make him a cheerleader.
Even on Tuesday, months after he identified coaches and health professionals who he said “completely mismanaged” Canadian teammate Paula Findlay, he said he’s disappointed that those people have not publicly owned up to their role in her last-place performance in London. (Findlay, a medal contender before her training was derailed by hip problems, revealed this fall that she had been suffering from iron deficiency during the Games, a serious problem that is simple to diagnose but was missed.)
“I think that’s what was lost in what I said,” Whitfield said. “I wanted the people who made mistakes to be held accountable so that the next person that came through – you can’t go back in time and redo it for Paula – but I wanted to say to the two people that I talked about, that you stand up and be held accountable so that this doesn’t happen again. We’ll see. I don’t know if they’ll do that.
“Hopefully they’re considered two different things. We have a great sport. We have a very good federation. We have a federation that’s done well by its athletes for a long time. ... I could go race Ironman and walk away. I do this because I like it. So I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe in Triathlon Canada.”
Whitfield’s presentation at the school marked the official launch of Tri This, Triathlon Canada’s talent identification and recruitment initiative. He was there along with Grant Darby, a four-time world paratriathlon championship medalist, who hopes to be competing in Rio when the sport makes its Paralympic Games debut in 2016, as well as former national triathlon team coach Barrie Shepley.
While children may represent Canada’s best medal hopes 15 years from now, Shepley said his focus is reaching into Canadian university athletics programs and plucking the next great triathlete out of a swimming pool, cross-country team, or even a soccer pitch.
The ideal recruit might be a tough competitor in their early 20s, who is not quite good enough to make an Olympic team in a sport such as swimming, and but has an unknown talent on the road and bike, Shepley said. This year, he plans to run potential candidates through a series of interviews, as well as biomechanical tests, to see if they would be a good fit for Canada’s triathlon program.
Next summer, Whitfield will be concentrating on more grassroots development, by orchestrating several events in Ontario, including the first Endurance Games, to be held in Barrie. He didn’t go into detail, but the idea is to remove all the barriers that typically keep people from trying a triathlon, such as expensive bikes and cold lakes.
As for his own racing career, he says he’ll be competing again in March, and the crash in London doesn’t consume him. (When a student asked, “What kind of obstacles are in a race?” he joked, “Well, there’s speed bumps.”)
He took two months off training after the Games, and enjoyed being with his kids and walking Pippa, 5, to school. She and Evelyn, 2, joined him on a week-long trip to Ontario, so they could visit their grandparents, their father could talk to the media and school kids, and their mom, Jennie, could get a deserved break after carrying the load during the Olympics.
As for another Games, Whitfield says he is not completely ruling out his fifth. But if his recruiting efforts are successful and the next generation steps up, he says he sincerely hopes that at age 41, he won’t be fast enough to qualify.
“Make it impossible for me to come back by being so good,” he said, throwing down the gauntlet to young triathletes across Canada.