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Sunday, June 11, 2000

Sydney will see triathletes' passion
Try to visualize swimming 1,500 metres, then emerge from the water and jump on bicycle to pedal 40 kilometres before dumping the bike and running 10 kilometres--all in less than two hours.

Crazy, you say?

Perhaps, but triathletes--men and women--do it with a passion. Some of them will even compete in this sport in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. In fact, four of them will be Canadians with a good chance of medalling.

You see, thanks to the salesmanship of Les McDonald of Vancouver, head of triathlon's global body, the sport was included in this year's Olympics for the first time. It was McDonald who convinced IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch that the sport deserves a place in the Olympic program.

Samaranch, an astute executive, was willing to agree, providing McDonald, a former mountain-climber, skier, runner and five-time world iron man champion, can assure him that both men and women would be competing and that at least 50 countries would compete in the sport. Also, that the event wouldn't last more than two hours in view of TV interest.

McDonald went to Europe and began selling triathlon. He paid for the airfares and hotels out of his own pocket. Then he found a willing organizational helper.

"I was the founder of the Ontario Association of Triathletes," said Brian Shepley, now national triathlon coach who'll take four Canadian athletes to Sydney. "I started working with kids aged 7-8 up to 17-18. We were successful because we had a national champion every year since 1988.

"We did it all on our own, because we were never funded. For instance, I've been the national coach since 1991 and never received a nickel. But I was more interested in helping youngsters and in creating a national training centre because only athletes who ranked internationally could qualify for the Olympics. And that took a lot of hard work."

The dedicated and determined mentor figured out that the best city for his sport would be Victoria because of the climate. He flew to Victoria and 20 athletes followed him. With no funding, he had to find them places to stay at for free.

Shepley personally distributed posters to 1,000 houses in Victoria, asking for help. And, indeed, 20 families were willing to take in one of the athletes for a six-month period. His efforts paid off as four of them made the team for Sydney.

"Simon Whitfield of Kingston, Carol Montgomery of Vancouver, Sharon Donnelly of Scarborough, Ontario and Isabel Baird Turcotte of Quebec City will be going to Sydney," said Shepley. "They deserved to qualify since Sharon won a gold, Simon and Carol bronze medals in last year's Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg.

"These people sacrificed a lot. Sharon Donnelly was a captain in the armed forces and resigned to be able to train fulltime. Isabell Baird-Turcotte was a full-time physiotherapist in a Quebec City hospital and gave it up to be able to train.

"I believe we have a shot at medals. In fact, Carol Montgomery could win two medals in spite of the fact that she underwent a serious groin operation when two of her veins overlapped. After she recovered, Carol won a World Cup event in Brazil, then flew to California and won a 10-kilometre race. Whitfield won a silver in a World Cup triathlon event and could do well in Sydney. He's only 25 and getting stronger every day.

It wouldn't be a surprise if one of our four triathletes found the streets of Sydney paved with gold. It would be the greatest reward for McDonald and Shepley.