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Monday, September 18, 2000

Poppa proud of golden boy

  SYDNEY -- While Simon Whitfield was gliding over the last leg of the Olympic men's triathlon, coach Barrie Shepley was punching numbers into his cell phone.

 Whitfield is Shepley's most ungainly charge, a 25-year-old with splendid athletic gifts and a creative personality. He also, on many days, has driven Barrie Shepley crazy.

 The jetstreams and whims that propel Simon Whitfield are all Greek to his coach. Shepley deals in details, Whitfield in moments. Whitfield tried on a singlet the night before the race, liked it and rejected the one he had planned to wear. The morning of the triathlon, he sent his bike and gear to the site on a cargo truck. Generally, athletes won't let their bikes out of sight.

 "That bike could have ended up freakin' anywhere," Shepley said later, shaking his head at Whitfield's blithe optimism.

 Whitfield and Shepley are more than coach and athlete, they are tutor and teacher, surrogate father and son. So maybe it shouldn't seem odd that as Whitfield was gaining for himself and his coach the greatest form of athletic legitimacy, an Olympic gold medal, Shepley would call his dad in Harrow, Ont.

 As he recounted his trackside phone call at a Canada House victory party, Shepley's eyes were red with tears.

 "The old father and son thing has challenges," he said, his voice quavering. "My Dad, he never said the soft things. I called him as Simon did the last 100 metres and I said, 'Dad, we did it.' He was losing it too on the other end of the phone."

 It is the theme that runs through Simon Whitfield's life, the never-ending dance between father and son.

 Simon Whitfield left the family home in Kingston when he was just 17. "I got sent to Australia to refine my focus and find what it was that I wanted to do," he said.

 The sender was his father, Geoff, an Australian born to a military man. Simon's father and grandfather had found their way at Knox Grammar School, a boarding school, near Sydney.

 In Kingston, Simon was listing. Two years before, at a high school track meet, he articulated a desire to win an Olympic gold in triathlon to his local paper, the Whig-Standard, but he seemed no closer to his goal, no closer to any goal, than before.

 He didn't do his homework. He dropped things around the house as Ophelia flung daisies. He was a typical teenager, loaded with potential but misdirected and out of sync with the people in his life -- teachers, coaches and parents -- who represented the values and direction he craved but could not call his own.

 "I lost my way," Whitfield said from the press podium Saturday. "I wasn't doing well at school and I bypassed a lot of stuff I should have been doing. I just didn't know what I wanted in life."

 Geoff Whitfield's father, Simon's grandfather, was a professional soldier, gassed at Gallipoli, Turkey, Australia's famous and honoured World War I battleground. He died when Geoff was seven. The role of father and mentor had been provided instead by the teachers and coaches and headmasters at Knox boarding school, whose motto, translated from Latin, reads "Do as a Man."

 Geoff would use the elements drilled into him at Knox to earn a degree in chemical engineering before finding work with du Pont in Kingston. And in science he would find his own balance between creativity and order. The laws of science require imagination to discern but they are immutable.

 He was not oblivious to his son's gifts.

 "Simon is rather creative in his outlook," Geoff said at the Canada House party. "The things he responds to, I don't hear, in people and in situations." But the father could not, would not, bear an underachiever.

 "In our house, if your best was a D and you got a D, you got a hug," Geoff said. "But if you could do an A and you got a D, you had to be accountable."

 Geoff's mother lived in Australia. She would be there to shepherd the boy should he need it and she was willing to help underwrite the cost of the boarding school. But the separation would pain Geoff and Linda Whitfield more than words can explain. Linda sat at a McDonalds in Syracuse as their son's plane took off, weeping into her coffee.

 In Australia, the boys called him "Simon Yank" and he struggled with expectations. "Dad, the headmaster told me I had to win every race," Simon said over the phone. "Welcome to the real world," his father replied.

 But as he broadened, the demands of triathlon stoked a competitiveness in Simon Whitfield. He did well in school and competed in his first Australian triathlon wearing boxer shorts and riding a mountain bike.

 Triathlon was both rigorous and eclectic, and Whitfield gravitated to the subsistence and nomadic lifestyle of the amateur athlete. "We slept in train stations and airports in Europe," Whitfield said. He stocked shelves in a grocery store and sold workout gear to make ends meet.

 Talking about exellence

 He eventually hooked up with Shepley and began training year round. It was Bondi Beach during spring and summer and Victoria, B.C., when the warm weather took hold in Canada. All year, he had ocean, hills and sand for training. His performances improved steadily and Whitfield devoted himself to the swim, his weakest of the three events. He swam nine times a week and five of those swims came at 5 a.m.

 In Victoria, Whitfield started going into local schools and talking not just about athletics, but about excellence and goal-setting, the things he could not grasp at home.

 "We talk about sport and about being good people," Whitfield said. "We talk about not being just average, about setting high goals and figuring out how to do it."

 Whitfield was not projected to win the triathlon. He had not won a race in more than a year. His coach spoke optimistically of a top-eight finish. A triathlon magazine ranked Whitfield in the mid-20s among the men, but he was sanguine on the way to the race -- the inner rhythms of the non-conformist thrive on other people's low expectations. The triathletes crowded to get on the bus at their pickup spot in the village. Whitfield watched them stuff themselves into a vehicle. He and Shepley then took the next one and sat, enjoying the ride.

 Whitfield was 28th in the 1.5-kilometre swim and ninth after the 40-km bike leg, an odyssey that included one collision and another near miss. Now, the race was on his terms. He waved to friends, once nearly turning himself around to give a thumbs-up sign. As he began to stake out the leaders, he thought about what he wanted.

 "I thought silver," he said. "Silver looked cool."

 But then he thought some more. Gold, he decided, would look cooler. "I had won silvers before, and it's awesome, but later you realize, gold would have been more awesome."

 And you could say in that moment, every element of Simon Whitfield's life coalesced.

 It turns out, they put gold only on the outside of the medal. You fill it up yourself, in this case, with the traces of mustard gas and the military values of a grandfather you never knew. You fill it with a grandmother's help and with time spent as a pauper. You fill it up with trips around the world, with fights with your dad and with a mother's tears that lay dead on a plastic table.

 And when Simon Whitfield reached the finish and hugged his parents, Geoff whispered into his ear.

 This is what he said: "I'm proud of you, son."