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Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Triathlon course is truly breathtaking

 SYDNEY - The potential early star of these Olympic Games is beautiful and nicely-contoured with a hint of underlying danger.

 The race course for the Olympic triathlon, which winds its way out of the shadow of the striking Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, is one of the most spectacular venues in Olympic history.

 "It's just gorgeous," said Ottawa's Sharon Donnelly, who, along with her teammates, took another practice swim in the chilly, potentially shark-infested waters of Farm Cove. "I think a lot of people will be watching just because of the beauty of it."

 This is triathlon's first appearance in the Games and those involved with the sport realize it is important to produce a solid debut. How a sport plays on television goes a long way towards determining its value in the Olympic pecking order.

 Having such a visually-stunning venue won't hurt.

 "This puts us on the map," said Canadian head coach Barrie Shepley. "One picture everybody is going to remember from these Games will be the Opera House. We've had more visibility in the last 120 days than we've had in the last 20 years."

 The women's event kicks off the first full day of Games with the women diving into the Farm Cove waters Saturday morning. The men compete Sunday morning. The water is chilly (just 16 degrees) and is being patrolled by divers, equipped with electromagnetic "pods" to ward off sharks which have been known to stalk the harbour.

 While downplaying the threat, Shepley said it is important no safeguards are overlooked. He took a team of juniors to Perth, Australia a few years ago and a shark "like the one in Jaws" bit the end off a surfboard and then cruised the shorline for three days.

 "(A shark attack) is not unrealistic, but you've got a better chance of winning the Australian lottery than getting attacked by a shark," he said.

 "I hadn't thought about it, but then there was a point when I was out there alone and I admit I thought about it for second," said Simon Whitfield of Kingston, Ont. "But then I thought why would they pick me? I'm not the best-looking guy out there."

 There are also jellyfish to contend with and the chilly temperature.

 "I'm Canadian," said the 25-year-old Whitfield, Canada's lone competitor in the men's event. He's ranked 13th in the world going into the event."I hope it freezes over and they ask us to skate on it, then I'll be fine."

 After their 1,500-metre swim, the competitors go through the transition zone just at the base of the steps of the Opera House and then hit the streets of Sydney for a 40-km bike and then a 10-km run.

 Canada's Carol Montgomery, 33, of North Vancouver, B.C., ranked 11th in the world, and the 33-year-old Donnelly, ranked 14th, will be trying to keep pace with the powerful Australian team led by top-ranked Michellie Jones and Loretta Harrop, second in the world. Isabelle Turcotte-Baird of Quebec City, Que., is also in the field.

 Some Australian media is speculating there could be a sweep by the home side.

 "It's not going to happen," said Shepley. "We're not afraid of them. We were reading that this morning on the way over here and (Montgomery) laughed. "You ask any of them who they're fearing and they'll say Carol Montomery."

 She was second at the world championships and has a couple of World Cup wins under her belt this year so a trip to the podium is a strong possibility. For Canadians, that would be an even better sight than the sun glinting off the Opera House and the choppy waters of Farm Cove.