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Sunday, September 17, 2000

Something so very Olympian

SYDNEY -- With less than 300 metres to go, Simon Whitfield made one last desperate chase and when he turned his head and looked behind him, he knew.

Everyone knew.

Canada had its first gold medal at the Olympic Games.

An athlete almost nobody knew about is the first Canadian hero of the Summer Games.

Simon Whitfield, born in Kingston, Ont., of Australian descent, now living in Victoria, B.C., had done it the Canadian way, coming from way back, finding a reserve nobody thought was possible, running his way into contention in the gruelling men's triathlon event.

And when there was a chance to win -- not just win a medal, but win the gold -- Whitfield managed what the other contenders could not. He found a way. First pushing his way into third place, then second, then that mad, desperate race to the finish line.

First his head turned, to see second place runner Stephan Vukovic of Germany behind him, then his right arm went into the air, then both arms and then the words came from his mouth. "Yes, yes, yes," he shouted before jumping into the tape, signifying the end of the most testing of all Olympic events.

"I've dreamt of this my entire life," he said, exhausted but exhilarated at the finish line. "I can't tell you how proud I am to be a Canadian."

The victory for Whitfield could not have come at a better time for Canada at the Olympic Games. The first day in Sydney, to be kind, was terrible. One by one, the three medal hopefuls, Carol Montgomery, of North Vancouver, Joanne Malar, from Hamilton, Tanya Dubnicoff, of Winnipeg, imploded in their events, leaving a disastrous feel to the day.

Montgomery had been one of the favourites to win the women's triathlon on Saturday morning, but a bicycle crash ended her race and her triathlon opportunity.

Malar finished seventh in her speciality race in the pool. Dubnicoff finished a shocking eighth in the cycling time trials.

Canadian team officials were caught holding their breath amidst the difficulty.

But everything changed on Sunday morning here. Everything changed heading into the final lap of the triathlon course. Before that, Whitfield was back in the pack, in decent shape after his swim, in rough shape after a less-than-pleasing bike element. But then came the run, the final 10 km on the winding roads of Sydney.

The place where Whitfield became a national figure, ironically running in a city where he used to run and train.

"I had one of those races," the 25-year-old said. "I knew if I hit that zone, I'm going to fly. I was in that zone. I couldn't believe how well (I was doing)."

He found that place that is forever unexplained but so very Olympian. He found that place that takes the ordinary and makes him more than that. He found a way to run the race of his life in the race of his life.

"I noticed I was getting some ground back," he said. "I just sprinted down well and I wanted it from here ... I knew I had the kick. My coach said 'One K to go, you're the gold medalist, nobody can beat you.'"

He was fourth, then third, then second, and for a time, it seemed like he would fall back to third. All this on the final lap after a 1,500-metre swim in the bay and a 40-km bicycle race, Whitfield, wearing a Canadian jersey almost torn off him, then tore into the lead.

"I just sprinted down well and I wanted it from there." He wanted it and no one was going to take it from him.

This is what makes the Olympics so special, when a Simon Whitfield in one hour, 48 minutes and 24 seconds swims, bikes and races into the hearts of a nation; reaching two of his ambitions at once; winning a gold medal and making the encyclopedia.

And on his way to receive his medal, Whitfield bent down and kissed the Olympic podium before IOC vice-president, Dick Pound, a Canadian himself, presented him with his gold medal.

He had never won an elite world-class triathlon before. This was his time and his place.

And when the national anthem played loudly, Simon Whitfield, overcome by emotion and accomplishment, buried his face in his hands, with tears everywhere. He cried, a nation applauded. This is when the Olympics are best.