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Sunday, September 17, 2000

Golden glory

A stirring finish allowed Canadian Simon Whitfield to overtake Germany's Stephan Vuckovic near the finish line and win Olympic euphoria for his grandmother - and Canada - in the men's triathlon


 SYDNEY -- He won it for his 96-year-old grandmother, who lives across the harbour here. And for Canada. Not necessarily in that order.

 And don't doubt Simon Whitfield when he tells you he won it for Canada. It's no phoney baloney when you have choice. Canada's first gold medal winner of the Sydney Olympics has dual citizenship. He could have competed in the Sydney Olympic Games for Australia. He could have had 150,000 people in the streets singing 'Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oye! Oye! Oye!'

 Instead he stood to hear O Canada.

 "They wanted him. He came here for three years. This could have been Australia's gold,'' said coach Barrie Shepley.

 "Never,'' said Canada's first gold medal winner of the XXVII Olympic Games in triathlon, a sport making its first appearance in the five ring circus.

 "I'm Canadian through and through. I love it in Canada. I love it in B.C.. Canadians are the nicest people in the world.''

 Grandma is pretty nice, too.

 "She just lives over there," he pointed across the harbour.

 If he didn't just give her the big one.

 "She has a lot of heart," laughed the 25-year-old who answers to the nickname 'Happy.'

 And how could you be happier?

 Whitfield ran the race of his life and the former miler who was born in Kingston, Ont. but calls Victoria, B.C. home, finished this one with a kick which was almost incomprehensible for a guy who had just swum 1,500 metres in Sydney Harbour, rode a bike 40 kilometres and ran all but the last couple of hundred metres of the 10,000 metre run.

 When did he know he had it to reel in Stephan Vuckovic to win the gold?

 "I didn't think I could,'' said the young man who lists his two all-time sports heroes as Wayne Gretzky and Sir Edmund Hillary.

 "I just wanted it so bad!

 "You gotta want it. You gotta want it.''

 A REPUTATION

 Whitfield has a reputation of being the entertainer on the triathlon circuit.

 "I told him this morning that this is the biggest audience he's ever going to be able to entertain,'' said Canadian coach Barrie Shepley.

 The way he won Canada's first gold at these Games was about as entertaining a way to win a triathlon as you can create.

 The competitor who has a pre-race superstition of clapping his hands three times before the starting horn blows, blew 'em away from way, way, way back.

 He was 28th when he fished himself out of the harbour and 38 seconds back of the leader.

 "It was a tough swim,'' he said. "But I couldn't believe how good I felt on the bike.''

 Whitfield started making up ground in the cycling portion.

 He was 21st after the first loop, 13th after the second and ninth after the third and only eight seconds back.

 Then it happened. And for a second there it looked like it was deja vu all over again, another Carol Montgomery, another Sharon Donnelly. He was involved in a dozen-bike crash.

 "I was terrified. When I saw his jersey in there I thought it was going to be a repeat of yesterday with Carol and Sharon,'' said Shepley.

 "I saw he was off his bike. But he was OK.

 LUCK WAS BAD

 "Yesterday all our luck was bad. Today our luck was good. Carol Montgomery could have done the same thing running as Simon did today. But luck wasn't on her side. Today Simon was lucky. His ying was her yang.''

 Back on his bike, Whitfield finished the fifth loop in 18th place 28 seconds back.

 One loop later they were trading in their bikes for shoes and Whitfield was 27th.

 But what a pit stop. Er, transition. He moved from 27th to 24th and moved up two seconds. And you could see, as he looked up into the crowd where Mark Spitz and Daley Thompson were watching, that he was fresh.

 Around the first loop of the course and then on his last lap, around Farm Cove and Mrs. Macquaries Chair, and down Mrs. Macquaries Road, Whitfield rocketed into fourth place. He was third as he went past the Art Gallery, briefly took the lead from Vuckovich at the Hyde Park turn but gave it right back. Whitfield was six or seven seconds back with a kilometre to go and looking over his shoulder, usually not a good sign.

 And then he just threw himself into overdrive and left the German like he was parked. In the end he won by 13.56 seconds over the German with Jan Rehula of the Czech Republic in for the bronze another 22.68 seconds back.

 Arms raised as he made his run in front of the stands in front of the Sydney Opera House, he was a sight for sore eyes for Canada, a country which got out of the gate at these Olympics a lot like Whitfield got out of the water in the triathlon.

 Shepley broke down in tears as he hugged his athlete and sobbed.

 "Oh, my God, I'm incoherent," he said.

 "Simon started with me as a young kid. I haven't been this happy since I saw my wife coming down the aisle.''

 Whitfield was pretty cool about it. He just wanted to wave to his grandmother and tell Canada this gold's for you.

 But then the flag went up. And then the sounds of O Canada filled the Australian air. That's when it hit him. That's when he lost it. He broke down in tears and sobbed into his flowers and buried his head into the arms of his girlfriend Malika after he left the podium.

 O Canada, it was perfect.