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Monday, September 18, 2000

'That crazy kid' a golden hero

  SYDNEY -- They met seven years ago, the giggly gold medalist and his training conscience. "He needed a lift," said Greg Bennett, "I had a car. It was that simple.

 "We were at this triathlon. He was this crazy, young kid and he knew everything about me. Who knew then that I'd met my best friend."

 After the medal ceremony yesterday, the newest Canadian hero, Simon Whitfield, took the gold medal from around his neck and placed it gently around the neck of Bennett.

 "He made me kiss it. He told me it was half mine, that he couldn't have done it without me. That's pretty emotional stuff," Bennett said.

 "He was crying on the podium but I beat him to it. When he came through transition at 5K on the run, I thought, he's got it won. I know how he runs. I know what he's been doing in training. All of a sudden, he made me cry. I said, 'dammit, he's going to win,' and I couldn't stop crying."

 They met in Australia seven years ago, the serious triathlete and the kid who knew nothing. Whitfield had moved from Canada to Australia at 17, searching for something, gone to his father's old grammar school. "I didn't find out it was an all-boy school until I got there," he said. "I was almost the first boy to dig a tunnel to the girls' school."

 He was that kind of kid. Full of life, fun, adventure, spirit. "They thought I was this chatterbox with a funny accent," Whitfield, the Olympic champion, said.

 Greg Bennett, the best known triathlete in Australia, wasn't sure what to make of Whitfield when they started to train together several years ago. "I couldn't believe he knew all about me, all my statistics, my times, all the things I'd done. By the time we got to Sydney -- it was about a 90-minute drive -- we decided to start training together.

 "Simon always had a lot of talent and a lot of ability. He likes to have a lot of fun, but what he was lacking was a little bit of work ethic. It's funny how it's worked out. I'm always very hard on myself and he taught me to relax. He learned to train from me. I learned from him.

 "It seems we needed each other."

 Bennett wanted nothing more than to run in the triathlon in his home town and his home country yesterday, to run and swim and cycle against his best friend. What a day and what a moment that would have been. But he was only named to the Australian team as an alternate. He went to court to appeal that decision but wasn't able to have it overturned.

 "I'm a patriotic Australian, but this was something different. This was Simon winning. He came before anything else.

 They began training together in Sydney but both moved to Victoria to train under coach Lance Walton. About two weeks ago, they went to the airport, with Whitfield heading to Australia, Bennett heading to a professional triathlon in Los Angeles.

 "He said to me 'You go win that race, I'll win this (the Olympics) for us.' He said `if I win, it's just as much yours as it is mine.' I thought then `that's really cool' not thinking he was going to win."

 What makes it happen for an athlete on the right day at the right time? It isn't ability, it's something much deeper than that. "Champions are people who embrace pressure," said Lance Watson, who coaches Whitfield and Bennett. "A lot of great athletes folded in this race. Simon turned up on a big day, he's a performer. I didn't find out anything about him I didn't already know. I just confirmed what I knew about him."

 His life will never be the same. You don't come from nowhere, win a gold medal, charm a country and then disappear. When he walked through the cafeteria at the athletes' village yesterday, everyone stood and clapped. "I wanted to jump on the table and do a jig, start a food fight or something." He wanted to be his silly self, the charming kid with a sparkle in his eyes.

 The kid had a plan before he came to the Olympics, a plan to go into schools in Victoria after the Games and talk about life and sport and being good people. "About striving to be more than average," he said. "Taking the hard road, setting goals and setting them high ... I plan to keep doing that."

 "He has this dream," said Greg Bennett, "of going across the country to schools, talking to kids. I can't think of anybody more suited to do that. I can't think of anybody who'd be better for sports and kids in Canada. That crazy kid has come along at just the right time."