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Friday, September 15, 2000

Kingston teen on familiar ground

  SYDNEY -- It's not exactly a homefield advantage, but Canada's Simon Whitfield won't feel completely out of place when he takes to the streets of Sydney for the men's triathlon Sunday morning.

 When the native of Kingston was 17 years old, he came to Australia to attend his father's alma mater, so he knows his way around these streets.

 He even knows how to say Wahronga, the suburb where he went to school and probably how to spell Woolloomooloo Bay, along which the competitors will run and cycle.

 "I didn't know it was an all-boys school," said the blond 25-year-old with a big grin. "I came here to meet Aussie women and I had to walk across the highway to do it.

 "I was the Canadian kid with the green tinge because I was kind of pale. The other kids asked me if I knew what grass was because they just thought we had snow all year round. I convinced someone I rode a polar bear to school."

 Because his dad was Australian, Whitfield has both Aussie and Canadian passports.

 "Home is where the heart is," said Whitfield, "and my heart is in Canada."

 Like any teenager, those years were important ones in Whitfield's life. In Australia, he was exposed to a people who revel in the outdoors and embrace sports like the triathlon. The top triathletes here get reams of coverage in the papers and are national icons.

 "It's a culture like hockey in Canada," said Whitfield. "The outdoors and being in the sun are part of the way of life. It's an outdoor society."

 AUSSIES CHEERING

 The triathlon course, one of the most spectacular venues the Olympics have seen, will be packed with Aussies cheering on their athletes in the women's event tomorrow morning in the first medal event of the Games, and the men's competition Sunday.

 Canada will have a shot at a medal in the women's event which would be a great way to generate some momentum for Team Canada.

 The competitors start by diving into the waters of Farm Cove, next to the striking Sydney Opera House and in the shadow of the distinctive Harbour Bridge.

 The transition zone is right at the base of the steps of the Opera House. After their 1,500-metre swim, the competitors take to the course which winds its way around Farm Cove and skirts the Royal Botanical Gardens

 Whitfield, who ran his first triathlon in Sharbot Lake in boxer shorts and rode his mountain bike, has been on a steady upward climb.

 What do you expect from a kid who lists Sir Edmund Hillary, along with Wayne Gretzky, as his sports heroes?

 He's ranked 13th in the world, but has registered two seconds (Rio and Corner Brook) and a fourth (Toronto) on this year's World Cup circuit.

 CHALLENGE

 He'll be trying to challenge top-ranked Dmitriy Gaag of Kazakhstan and Hamish Carter, ranked second in the world, from New Zealand.

 On the women's side, Canada's Carol Montgomery of North Vancouver, B.C., is ranked 11th in the world, while Sharon Donnelly of Ottawa is 14th.

 The Aussies are talking about a potential sweep of the women's event with world No. 1 Michellie Jones leading the way.

 Loretta Harrop of Australia is ranked second while Nicole Hackett is 17th.

 It will be important for the Canadian women to come out of the water close to Jones.

 If Montgomery can do that, she'll put herself in great position since she's the strongest runner in the field.

 She also will compete in the women's 10,000-metres at the Games.

 "The closer we are to a minute (behind Jones coming out of the water), the closer we are to hearing the Canadian anthem on the podium," said Canadian head coach Barrie Shepley.