He's hopeful that the next generation of Canadian triathletes like Andrew Yorke, Kyle Jones and John Rasmussen will lead Canada into the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games. But the 37-year-old, who was Canada's flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony in London, didn't eliminate the idea of competing in the next Olympics.
"I told them that if they leave the door open I'll go through it so they better close the door," Whitfield said Tuesday. The two-time Olympic medalist was in Toronto to help Triathlon Canada launch the 'Tri This' program at Rene Gordon Elementary Health and Wellness Academy.
"[It's] a very positive challenge for the next generation of young guys. Don't leave the door open, make it impossible for me to come back by being so good that there's no opportunity… As far as I'm concerned I'm not going to walk through it unless it's open so they should close it and I think they will."
That's part of the reason Whitfield was on hand at the Toronto elementary school. Along with four-time Paratriathlon medalist Grant Darby and Triathlon Canada, Whitfield wants to raise awareness for the sport by educating young people on how they can get involved. He spoke about the Kids of Steel program, which gives children and young adults the opportunity to dip their toes into triathlon.
The 'Tri This' program is more about attracting high performance athletes and streaming them into triathlon competition from other sports like track and swimming.
Canadian Olympian Paula Findlay, for example, started out as a swimmer at an early age and didn't get into triathlons until her late teens. American Olympian Gwen Jorgensen is another example of an athlete who was streamed into triathlons because of her experience in one of the three disciplines — running, swimming and cycling. Jorgensen was a member of the swimming, and track and field teams at the University of Wisconsin before being identified by the USAT's Collegiate Recruitment Program.
"We need to bring in more athletes," Whitfield said. "We talked about the dropout rate in swimming, [a sport like] swimming should be embracing triathlon. The first clubs that really embrace it and build in a triathlon element or a function of their club for those kids who say, 'well I don't really want to swim, but I could branch off and still be a part of the swim team' will bring in more numbers. They'll retain more kids and triathlon will get more athletes."
And Barrie Shepley the long-time Canadian national team coach feels it's in universities where Triathlon Canada will be able to recruit its next elite-level triathletes.
"The university is the place where the talent is," Shepley said. "There's this massive number of kids who had crushed dreams and they were this great 16-year-old swimmer and by 21 they've given up on dreaming.''
Shepley says he was in touch recently with a talented swimmer from Kelowna B.C., who had given up on the sport, saw an application to take up triathlon and has shown serious interest.
"We're trying to evaluate whether they're willing to make a four or five year commitment," Shepley said. "It's easy to say, 'I'm going to do it but then you see what Simon [Whitfield] has to do everyday… We're actually doing it like a job interview. First I'll get a ['Tri This'] application from someone, then I'll follow up, then I do a bit of homework and then the next serious part is actually like an NBA team where we do a medical [physical] on them."
Canada has yet to develop another Whitfield when it comes to triathlon competition on the men's side. And with competition levels continuing to increase it's unrealistic to hope for more stories like Findlay's where athletes are informally introduced to the sport. As Whitfield said it's now up to Triathlon Canada, through programs like 'Tri This', to develop some of those athletes in a more formal manner.