Triathlete Simon Whitfield plans on some heart-to-heart talks with past flag-bearers Clara Hughes and Adam van Koeverden, two close friends.
He would like their guidance about the emotional toll and intense spotlight that shines on the chosen Canadian athlete who leads Team Canada into an Olympic opening ceremony.
He got a small glimpse of that exhilarating spotlight on Thursday, as he stepped to a podium before a crowd on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill and was overcome by what he called a ‘how did I get here?’ moment.
It started a day jammed with interviews and congratulatory e-mails, shout-outs to him on Twitter from across Canada and recollections of his long career.
The two-time Olympic medalist was announced as Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony at this summer’s London Olympics, his fourth and almost certainly final Games at age 37.
Whitfield was introduced to the crowd by one of his boyhood idols, gold-medal-winning swimmer Mark Tewksbury, chef de mission for the 2012 Canadian Olympic Team. Tewksbury had delivered the news to Whitfield by phone, as the triathlete was hit by memories of books and posters he had once collected of the swimmer.
“To receive a phone call from one of your childhood idols to call you and tell you you are the Olympic flag-bearer, to lead your country, teammates, and fellow Olympians into the stadium, it’s overwhelming,” Whitfield said. “When I get overwhelmed, I go for a run.”
He ran toward the Terry Fox monument along the Trans-Canada Highway, thinking of various Canadian athletes on the way and picking up momentum. “I was actually kind of jigging,” he laughed in a teleconference on Thursday at the end of a long day of interviews.
Many of the athletes he thought of were also considered as worthy possibilities for flag-bearer. He thought of boxer Mary Spencer’s 5 a.m. runs, he said, the athleticism of three-time Olympic trampoline medalist Karen Cockburn and Olympic-champion wrestler Carol Huynh. He thought of the pressure on Canada’s male rowers to win and his faith in fiery captain Christine Sinclair and her leadership of the women’s soccer team. He revered show-jumper Ian Millar’s 10 Olympic appearances by respectfully calling him “sir.”
Whitfield, who was raised in Kingston and now lives in Victoria, won Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in an electric performance as the sport debuted at the Games – a surprise victory from a young athlete coming seemingly out of nowhere at the time. He placed 11th four years later in Athens. The enduring Canadian then surged back and earned silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Simon Whitfield is truly a fitting representative of this year’s team and how they see themselves which, in their own words, is fierce, proud, world-class, relentless, unbreakable,” said Tewksbury, saying he polled athletes on the kind of qualities they wanted in a flag-bearer.
Whitfield carried the nation’s flag in the closing ceremony in 2000 but don’t ask him to recall it – he doesn’t remember a thing. He knows that is a far cry from what he will experience marching Canada’s team into the July 27 opening ceremony in London.
“I very much see this as leading in a team – I represent all of us,” Whitfield said. “The closing was a bit more about the individual performance of that Games. I was pretty young and it was a such blurry experience.”
Ask him if the duty can be a curse or a distraction, and veteran doesn’t seem at all worried. Hughes, the speed-skater and cyclist who carried it into Vancouver in 2010, earned a bronze there. When kayaker van Koeverden carried it in 2008 after winning gold and bronze medals in 2004, he placed a disappointing eighth in the men's K-1 1000m event before rebounding to earn a silver medal in the men's K-1 500m.
Several Canadian athletes reacted Thursday on Twitter with resounding support.
“The most inspiring dude I know,” van Koeverden said. “@simonwhitfield is our FlagBearer and I couldn’t be more proud.”
“Congrats @simonwhitfield, Canada’s flag-bearer,” Cockburn said. “You inspired me in Sydney, excited to march with you in London.”
Whitfield said he gives thanks to sports science and new coach Jon Brown for an adapted training regimen that has allowed him to contend in a field full of young 20-somethings, even though as he jokes, “I feel dated when people tell me they watched me win in 2000 when they were in Grade 4.”
When he looks back on his gold-medal-winning performance in 2000, he thinks his swim was weak. He knows he can’t get away with that in today’s triathlons. He has trained harder and longer for these Games than any other. You can’t be weak in any of the three parts today. That training, he believes, can carry him past any distraction.
“I live so much in what I’m doing right now at the moment,” Whitfield said. “When I walk into the stadium I’ll be in that moment, but that morning I’ll be training and preparing and the next morning I’ll be training too. I’ll compartmentalize it well, and I’ll lean heavily on Mark Tewksbury to help me get through.”