When the Canadian Olympic Committee named Simon Whitfield as flag-bearer for the opening ceremony at the London Games Thursday they selected one of the most likable and respected athletes in Canada. The 37-year-old is also a member of the grey panthers on the Canadian Olympic team.
There once was a time when 30 was considered old for any athlete. Now Whitfield will join cyclist Clara Hughes, 39, tennis player Daniel Nestor, 39, and 65-year-old show-jumper Ian Millar, who will be appearing in his record-breaking 10th Olympics. None of these athletes are going as window dressing. All have a chance at a medal.
"Sport used to be a young man's game,'' Whitfield said with a chuckle on a telephone conference call. "We have been able to lengthen our careers.''
With two Olympic medals to his credit and the father of two children, Whitfield still maintains that boy-next-door charm. He has remained grounded and hasn't strayed from the values of hard work and humility his parents instilled.
"I have a keen perspective on how fortunate I am to be able to do sport for a living,'' said Whitfield, who lives in Victoria. "For every honour or something I accomplished, I also have had a humbling moment. That keeps you grounded.''
During the call Whitfield even apologized for lying to a local reporter who had asked him earlier if he might be the flag-bearer.
"I felt bad,'' he said. "I owe you a pint.''
The first thing Whitfield did when told he would be flag-bearer is hug wife Jennie, who he credits with being his best friend. Jennie and daughters Pippa and Evelyn will be in London for the Olympics.
Whitfield ran his first triathlon as an 11-year-old in an event organized by friends. He won the gold medal when triathlon made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He admitted to overtraining and "trying to reinvent the wheel'' for the 2004 Athens Games where he finished 11th. Critics figured his Olympic career was over but Whitfield battled back for a silver in 2008 at Beijing.
Along the way the Kingston, Ont., native inspired a generation of athletes to compete in triathlon.
"Simon Whitfield has become an iconic figure in our sport,'' Stephen Holmes, president of Triathlon Canada, said in a release. "The positive effects of Simon's two Olympic medals on our sport have been endless in every corner of this country.''
Whitfield has adapted as the sport evolved. Realizing he needed to be more efficient in the water Whitfield has worked with two-time Olympic swimmer Rick Say.
"In Sydney I was able to get away with a weaker swim,'' he said. "Twelve years ago you were afforded small weaknesses. Now, with the way the athletes have evolved, you can not have a weakness.''
Friends describe Whitfield as a scatterbrain, someone who has washed his passport at least three times. He also has never mailed in a training session and can leave athletes much younger than him panting in exhaustion.
When he trains, Whitfield likes to listen to Stephen King books on his ear buds and drink chocolate milk afterwards.
Besides the Olympic medals Whitfield has 14 World Cup victories, 21 podium finishes, seven top-10 finishes at World Championships and 10 Canadian national championships.
What makes it better is he doesn't take himself too seriously and appreciates what life has given him.
"I feel very privileged to be able to carry the flag for the team,'' he said. "I honestly was a little bit overwhelmed at first.''
In typical style, when Whitfield learned he would be the flag-bearer he went for a run near his home in Victoria. When he reached the Terry Fox statue he high-fived it.
"I give Terry a high-five every time I pass him,'' Whitfield said. "He knows me now.''
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