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Simon Whitfield lashes out at Paula Findlay's coaches, support staff

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

LONDON – Simon Whitfield was still emotional, angry. His lips quivered as he spoke on a central London sidewalk before a training session Sunday morning, fiercely defending fellow Canadian triathlete Paula Findlay and criticizing people he said "supported and endorsed a plan that was destined to fail."

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Paula Findlay breaks down during Saturday's triathlon. (The Canadian Press)

Findlay, a 23-year-old star competing for the first time since suffering a hip injury just over a year ago, was last to cross the finish line in the women's triathlon Saturday – and she finished only because she was encouraged not to quit. She said she didn't have the legs but didn't want to disappoint her supporters. She apologized to her country. When she crossed the finish line, she was seen saying “I’m sorry.”

Whitfield, the 37-year-old two-time medallist and Canadian flag bearer in London, said others need to take responsibility. He named David Smith, an exercise physiologist in Calgary; Debbie Muir, a high performance advisor with the Own the Podium program; and Patrick Kelly, the coach with whom Findlay split in June.

In short, Whitfield said they designed a flawed recovery plan for Findlay, kept trying to implement it when it didn't work and then "actually actively sabotaged her," trying to prove she wasn't ready to compete so they could save face.

"It was completely mismanaged," Whitfield said. "Look, it's all history now, and they'll learn from it. And I'm not saying people should be fired. I'm just saying they should stand up and say, 'That's on me,' because it was on Paula yesterday.

"We all saw it. We saw this incredible athlete, this incredible person who's going to go on to be probably a three-, four-time Olympian – and a doctor one day – this amazing athlete, young woman put under an enormous amount of pressure, held accountable on race day.

"And I want Doc Smith and Patrick and Debbie Muir to step up and say, 'I endorsed that plan. She was injured for a year, and it's on me. She did what I told her to do, and in the end, it failed. It's on me.' That's all they need to say. No one needs to be fired. Just have the courage to say, 'Yesterday's result is on me.' "

Whitfield, who won a gold medal in 2000 in Sydney and silver four years ago in Beijing, competes in the men's triathlon Tuesday with teammates Kyle Jones and Brent McMahon.

"I'm disappointed in the timing of Simon's remarks," Triathlon Canada executive director Alan Trivett said in an e-mail through a spokesman. "But there is some validity in them that we all at Triathlon Canada, collectively, need to take responsibility for what transpired during Paula's Olympic race."

Trivett did not address Whitfield's specific criticisms and was not made available for an interview. Muir and Anne Merklinger, chief executive officer of Own the Podium, were not made available for interviews, either. Messages left for Smith and Kelly by Yahoo! Sports were not returned.

As he watched Findlay struggling on the course Saturday – physically and emotionally – Whitfield set off a firestorm when he posted on his Twitter account: "gutted 2c Paula so upset. There are some people that need 2b held accountable here, total incompetence before they jumped ship. #shameful"

Speaking in a regularly scheduled media session Sunday morning to preview Tuesday's race, he not only stood by his tweet, but added much more. He said he was sticking up for a younger teammate.

"I said to myself, 'I'm not going to say anything. I'm not going to say anything,' " Whitfield said. "And then to see her crying with her dad, I'm thinking, 'No way, this is not fair. This is not right.' So Twitter gives you an outlet. If you're misquoted, you can clarify what you said. And in this case, I wasn't misquoted. I do think the people that have jumped ship on her should be held accountable, as she was held yesterday. …

"It's like, they were ready to celebrate this young woman, and if no one's going to say something, I'm standing up to say what happened was wrong."

Findlay won five major events over two years, including one on the same course she dragged herself through Saturday. She was considered a medal favourite for London. But then she suffered that hip injury and went through a tumultuous year trying to regain her form.

Whitfield said the problem was not a misdiagnosis. He said she should have built up her training – a 30-minute run, then a 45-minute run, then a 50-minute run, and so on – but her handlers had her rush straight back into training as if she hadn't been hurt. She suffered setbacks. They kept doing it.

"You do this not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, not six times. You do this eight times," Whitfield said. "Over and over and over again, they just kept driving the car into a brick wall, and in the end, they all finally said, 'She's difficult to work with,' and they all jumped ship. No, you should have stood up and said, 'We failed.' …

"She's not a wind-up toy that you just send off. That's what they wanted. 'Wind-up toy, send you off. You win. We all celebrate.' That's what they did two years ago, and they're like, 'Why doesn't this keep working? Just wind this thing up and send it off.' And when it broke, they said, 'She's difficult. She's really hard to work with.' She's the same person you celebrated two years ago. This is difficult. Too bad."

Trivett told The Canadian Press that Findlay was a "terrible patient" because she wouldn't back off of training to heal and had relapses. He told the National Post that Findlay's nagging hip injury evolved into a cycle of flare-ups between training sessions and hampered her preparations. "I think that wore on the relationship between Paula and her coach," he said.

Whitfield said Findlay split with Kelly when Whitfield and his support staff – including coach Jon Brown, a former Olympic runner – stepped in and suggested a different course. Findlay trained with Whitfield and Brown over the past six weeks.

Some of the details are unclear at this point, but Whitfield alleged that Smith, Muir and Kelly hindered instead of helped. He indicated that Kelly was on his way out, but that Findlay ultimately decided to go in different direction and the parting was messy.

"They actually actively sabotaged her the last six weeks with obstacles, hurdles and fitness tests – fraudulent fitness tests and comments that were not helpful," Whitfield said. "That was even more damning. Not only did you get her to this position, now you're trying to trip her. … They were basically trying to prove she wasn't ready, but I think it was to save their face."

As for Kelly, Whitfield said: "He actively worked in the background to undermine it. That's not a thing of character. When he was called on to appeal against her decision, he should have had the character to say, 'I abstain from this, that would be right,' instead of actively working against her."

Whitfield added: "I think she was ill-advised. I think people's ego and their protecting themselves became more important. It became about appearing to do the right thing instead of doing the right thing. You can sum it up with all that."

Trivett said in the e-mail that after the Olympics, "Triathlon Canada will work collaboratively with our team and partners to improve our injury management and athlete preparation protocols as we all look back at Paula's preparations for the Games, in order to ensure that we continue to provide nothing but the best possible support for all our athletes."

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