Simon Whitfield defies heat, hills, and smog in Beijing

To give you an idea of just how far the sport of triathlon has advanced in a relatively short time, Victoria’s Simon Whitfield can only laugh at the suggestion that the performance that was good enough to earn him the sport’s first ever Olympic gold medal in Sydney, back in 2000, could garner a similar result in Beijing this month.

“Our sport has evolved so much, with different players coming in and taking the level up,” Whitfield told the national media on a pre-Olympic conference call, fondly reliving his greatest achievement.

“How weak my swim was back then—I couldn’t get away with it. I’d be out the back of the pack. And even the bike and particularly the consistency and the top-end speed of the run have increased so much. But I’ve been able to respond to that. It’s gone quickly, these eight years, but it’s been an enormous amount of training”¦to make that improvement and keep up with the pace of triathlon and the evolution of the sport.”

Although 33 years old and competing in one of the truest tests of endurance at the Olympics, Whitfield remains at or very near the top of his game. Despite dropping to a disappointing 11th at the Athens Games four years ago, Whitfield heads to Beijing ranked fourth among Olympic qualifiers by the International Triathlon Union and is coming off a win at an event in Minneapolis in mid-July.

He’s one of just six members of the 331-strong Canadian contingent to have ever struck Olympic gold—one of only four to do so this decade. And he’s trying to join the select company of rowers Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle as the only Canadians to win gold medals at more than one summer Olympiad.

They did that in 1992 and again in 1996, so Whitfield would stand alone as the only Canadian to win gold in nonconsecutive Summer Games.

But he isn’t concerned with his place in Canadian sports history just yet. He’s figuring out how best to tackle the 1,500-metre swim and 40-kilometre cycle, followed by the 10-kilometre run around the Ming Tomb Reservoir—a spectacular venue with a temple in the middle of the lake—an hour northwest of downtown Beijing.

“It’s a fitness course,” the affable Whitfield says. “I know that sounds obvious, but with the heat being such a factor and the level of the racing that we’re at now, I think you’re going to see that it’s the fittest athlete”¦not the strongest athlete who’s going to win.

"We’ve certainly changed a little how we’ve approached things. Instead of doing four quick reps [in training], we’re doing eight—they’re a little bit slower, but we’re doing twice as many. That’s how we’ve adapted the training.

"And I’ve certainly seen dividends in that, particularly in my swimming, but even in my running, where my top-end speed has come about through working hard and getting stronger. It’s going to take being tactically astute, but it’s also going to be a function of pure fitness to overcome the heat and the hills.”

Another issue for so many of the elite endurance athletes competing in these Games is the less-than-favourable air quality in Beijing. But Whitfield has raced on the course twice in the past and says smog has never been an issue.

And since the conditions will be the same for all the competitors, Whitfield isn’t allowing outside distractions to creep into his focused mind. He’s just trying to figure out how to be faster than he’s ever been—certainly faster than he was in Sydney—when he gets to the starting line on August 18.

“Eight years ago, a guy came off the bike with a minute-and-a-half lead and we ran him down—I just don’t see that happening anymore,” explains Whitfield, who’s excited about his chances to return to the top of the podium.

“If someone has a minute-and-a-half lead, you might run 30 to 40 seconds into them, but you’ll still lose. If you could have told me a year ago that I could look into the future and say at this time right now, this is the point that I’ll be at in my fitness, I would have been ecstatic. So my fitness and my preparation are there. I swim faster than I did last year, I ride faster than I did last year, and I ran the other day faster than I’ve ever run. So I’m in the right place.”

And he’s not just there physically. He and wife Jennie have started a family in the past year, with the birth of their daughter, and while this has added to the workload at home, it has also provided Whitfield with a new outlook on everything he does.

“It’s definitely been a different type of journey than I could have ever predicted, doing this as a family now,” he says, his voice picking up noticeably as he beams about his baby, Pippa Katherine.

“That’s had a very positive effect, and there have been challenges. I’m certainly not 25 with no responsibilities, as I was in Sydney, and that changes how I can train and how I recover. But I came home from swimming this morning, and all I heard was Pippa singing away upstairs, and that brings not just a smile to your face but a certain skip in your step throughout the day. It’s quite inspiring, and it brings a great balance to my life and my training.”

A lot has changed in Simon Whitfield’s life and his sport since that day in 2000 when he was on top of the world. He knows his performance must improve on August 18, but he’s hoping the result is exactly the same.

Jeff Paterson is a sportscaster and talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at .