LONDON -- After the medical staff stitched up his big toe and patched up his legs, Simon Whitfield met his family underneath the grandstands. There were few words amid the tears. His wife, Jennie, hugged him, but his collarbone was sore, so she cracked a joke: "But you can still drink a beer with your right hand, right?" They shared a big, sad laugh.
Whitfield's five-year-old daughter, Pippa, gave him a bunch of maple leaves she had gathered off the ground. He said it was "probably the worst bouquet ever," but he said it with affection, and you know he thought it was beautiful.
Did she understand Daddy had crashed?
"I'm not sure," Whitfield said, wearing a red touque on a cool-but-not-cold afternoon, concealing the goose egg on his head. "I think she understood that Mom and Dad were upset, but we keep perspective."
One day, Pippa will understand what happened here, what it really meant, why Mom and Dad were really crying.
Whitfield withdrew from the men's triathlon Tuesday because of a freak accident, slipping on a speed bump early in the cycling stage and falling off his bike. He had competed in four Olympics and won two medals -- an unexpected gold in Sydney in 2000, a thrilling silver in Beijing in '08 -- and he had carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony in London. Just like that, it was over.
"That's not how I pictured the script ending," Whitfield said.
But listen to the whole story:
Whitfield didn't leave his wife and kids behind in Victoria for months, didn't let their world revolve around his schedule, didn't delay his Olympic retirement just so he could take one last twirl. He was going for it. Knowing he was 37 years old and competing with superstar British brothers Alistair Brownlee and Jonathan Brownlee, he changed his training. He ran with marathoners, pushing his body to a new place.
"I will try to throw the haymaker," Whitfield said Sunday. "I will try. I will give my everything. I will go down swinging."
Before the race, Whitfield said he was having more fun than he'd ever had at an Olympics. He had received an e-mail from Wayne Gretzky congratulating him on being named the flag bearer. When he marched into the stadium, he was so jacked, even though he knew this would be his last Summer Games, even though he's ready to scale back his racing, he said to himself: "I want to do this again."
Whitfield was able to share this experience with his Jennie, Pippa and two-year-old Evelyn. Before the race, he knew he would spend the next day watching buddy Adam van Koeverden compete in the 1,000-metre kayak sprint, then play with the kids in the park, and it sounded like he couldn't wait.
The start of the race hardly could have gone better. Whitfield found himself in a group of swimmers he usually doesn't reach. He said that meant he was "obviously very fit and ready." He was 15th out of the water, within striking distance of the lead group, and he was among the competitors using an aerodynamic time trial bike and helmet instead of road race gear. The whole strategy was to ride his way into the lead group so he would have a chance to throw the haymaker at the end.
"That was the ideal scenario for me, to get a great swim, to get a lead group, 20 guys," Whitfield said. "I would have been in a good position on the bike, and then I would have executed a run."
But then came the speed bump.
[Related: Curse of the Canadian Olympic flag bearers]
When triathletes make the transition from swimming to cycling, they start pedalling barefoot. On the fly, they try to slip into their cycling shoes, which are attached to the pedals. As Whitfield tried to slip into his, he hit the speed bump at an awkward angle and, as he put it, "ended up crowd-surfing, which is good for concerts and not so good for sporting events."
"I was watching it on the screen, and it's like, 'Whoa, did I just see that right?' " said Whitfield's coach, Jon Brown. "It's the last thing that you expect to happen. He was trying to get in the shoes. Went over a speed bump. That's it."
The rider right behind Whitfield, Costa Rica's Leonardo Chacon, crashed because of it. But Chacon was able to return to the race and cross the line 48th. Whitfield suffered the cut on his big toe, gashes on his shins and knees, the sore collarbone, the goose egg. As his injuries were treated, he had to watch the race go on without him.
"Bitterly, bitterly disappointed," Brown said. "To be taken out over something kind of stupid, really, just a bad accident …" Asked if Whitfield would have been in it, given the way the race went, Brown said: "I think so, yeah."
Who knows if Whitfield would have been able to win a medal, let alone gold? The Brownlee brothers have reached another level. Alistair won gold easily. Jonathan won bronze even though he had to serve a 15-second penalty for a bad transition. Spain's Javier Gomez, a two-time world champion, sandwiched between them for silver.
But at least Whitfield would have been able to find out. At least he would have known where all that training would have placed him. At least he would have been able to go down swinging.
In June, the National Post reported that he and van Koeverden call competing "expressing their fitness."
"People want me to say, 'I fought for the medal all the way to the line,' " Whitfield told the paper then. "No. I fought to express as much of the fitness and hard work that I've done as I could. And in Beijing, that ended up being second."
And here, in his final Olympic race, that ended up being "DNF." He was the only competitor who did not finish.
"That's the hard part," Whitfield said. "The hard part's the sacrifices, to be away so much. My breakdown moment was seeing my wife, because I know how much Jennie puts into this, and we're a team, and she's put in so much sacrifice and being at home a lot alone. That was the hardest part."
At least they keep perspective. Whitfield wasn't able to express his fitness, but he was able to express something else.
"It was hard to see my daughter upset and my wife," Whitfield said. "I was pretty upset. Yeah, that's life. That means it means something, doesn't it?"
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