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Sunday, September 17, 2000

Now it's Whitfield's time to party

 SYDNEY -- It's a long way from Sharbot Lake, a little spot in cottage country near Ottawa, to the top step of a podium at the Olympics.

 It's a long way in so many different ways, from the quaint, picturesque site of a little triathlon to Olympic glory at a finish line on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House.

 Simon Whitfield, who contested his first triathlon at Sharbot Lake in boxer shorts and riding his mountain bike, made the step Sunday.

 But first, he kissed it.

 The 25-year-old Kingston native bent and kissed the top step of the podium before he received his gold medal, Canada's first of the XXVII Olympiad.

 "It's unbelievable," said Whitfield of his stunning win. "I dreamed of this my entire life. I dreamed about winning a gold medal. It happened today and I can't tell you how proud I am to be Canadian.

 "I said all week I just wanted to hear our anthem."

 Whitfield's road to that top step has passed by here before. As a teenager, he came to Australia to go to the school his father, a native Australian, had attended.

 He spent two years at the school and they changed his life. He was ridiculed when he got here as the pale Canadian kid, "the kid with the green tinge," he said, and sat for hours on the lawn outside the boarding school trying to get a little colour.

 His classmates were bronzed by the Australian lifestyle which embraces the outdoors and tackles the challenges of the sea and unforgiving terrain rather than recoils from them.

 Whitfield took the teasing and in a foreshadowing of the competitiveness he showed Sunday, gave a good bit of it back, too.

 "I had somebody convinced I rode a polar bear to school," he said.

 He only intended to stay for one year in Sydney, but one stretched into two.

 "Australia," he said, "taught me about competitiveness and pride. I'm deeply, deeply proud to be Canadian, but part of my heart is here in Australia."

 Whitfield's training partner is Aussie Greg Bennett, who won the 1999 Sydney World Cup on the course used Sunday and just narrowly missed making the Australian team. They train together now in Victoria, B.C., where Whitfield now makes his home.

 Whitfield's medal salvaged what had been a disappointing opening weekend of the Olympics for Canada which started with disaster in the women's triathlon Saturday. Canada's Carol Montgomery, a medal favourite, was involved in a horrific bike crash which put her out of the race and sent her to hospital.

 A crash also thwarted Ottawa's Sharon Donnelly.

 Gymnast Slava Jeltkov, a favourite in the men's high bar, failed to qualify for the final.

 Cyclist Tanya Dubincoff and swimmer Joanne Malar both posted finishes which were less than they had hoped. But then there was Whitfield.

 He stepped up and gave Canada a boost when the country needed it.

 It wasn't easy.

 For a moment during the cycling portion of the event, it looked like he, too, might fall victim to a tangled mass of legs and metal, but he planted his feet, slid by the mess and, after dropping a few choice words on the victims, kept going.

 "I had my little hissy fit," he said. "I put my feet down, slid a bit, screamed a bit and got back on my bike."

 An incredible run allowed him to make up a huge deficit on the leaders. Whitfield had been in 28th place after the 1,500m swim in Farm Cove, next to the Opera House, and was 25th coming off the bike.

 "I felt really good the whole way," he said. "I couldn't believe it. At one point, I started thinking, 'here I am in the lead at the Olympic Games.' Then I had to refocus. I didn't think I had won until I turned the last corner."

 Whitfield beat Germany's Stephan Vuckovic by 16 seconds.

 "At kilometre nine, I knew I had to attack because in a sprint finish, I don't have a chance against him," said Vuckovic. "Then 500 metres in front of the finish I saw him four metres behind me and I said, 'okay, goodbye. See you later."

 When that Canadian anthem was played, it sent a message of hope and maybe a bit of a challenge to the rest of the Canadians.

 "I think it's just great," said Hayley Wickenheiser of the women's softball team. "Especially after Carol Montgomery had such a disappointing day. To be the first to get a gold is always exciting.

 "It's something for the rest of us to build on. It's always inspiring."

 Vuckovic was gracious in defeat, noting "to lose to a good friend is not so bad.

 "I don't know about the future, but for the next two weeks, it will be one big party," he added.

 Said Whitfield: "I'm with him."

 Party on. He's earned it.