For years, Simon Whitfield has been showing the world he can do it all. As the best triathlete this country has ever produced, the four-time Olympian has displayed a versatility that has allowed him to excel in the water, on a bike, and on foot. From the golden glow that accompanied his victory in Sydney in 2000 to the crushing disappointment of being thrown from his bicycle in last summer’s London Games, Whitfield has truly covered the spectrum of experiences as an elite athlete.
And now, with his racing days winding down and his focus on the next stage of his life after competitive sport, the 38-year-old is putting himself in position to help the next wave of Canadian athletes hoping to make their mark on the world stage.
Whitfield has teamed up with CIBC and is one of six mentors who will be working closely with a group of 70 up-and-coming high-performance athletes in a variety of sports. The program is called Team Next and it will provide these athletes with financial support to ease the burdens that come with devoting so much time to training. That’s where the bank comes in, and the monetary contributions are certainly welcome. But what Whitfield is able to provide these athletes could prove to be far more valuable in the long run: he wants to share his knowledge and experiences to help the next generation of Canadian Olympians.
“This gives me an opportunity to pay it forward, as they say, and it’s something that is fulfilling and meaningful for me as I transition to life after sport,” Whitfield tells the Georgia Straight by telephone from his home in Victoria, where he still runs and bikes (but steers clear of the water).
As part of Team Next, Whitfield has been assigned a group of athletes to work with. This is not a coaching role, and it isn’t an around-the-clock commitment. He will see his group at several workshops throughout the year, but he says he’s given his athletes ways to get in touch whenever they need him.
In an age of instant communication, Whitfield has assured his athletes that he’s always just a phone call or text message away.
“It’s definitely not 24/7—I’ve got two kids already,” he says with a laugh. “My group will certainly have my cellphone number and email address, and I’ll get back to them as quickly as I can and be there for part of their journey in whatever capacity I can. That’s the role I plan to play. I’m just there to be a sounding board, to talk through my experiences and maybe ask some questions like ‘Have you thought of this?’ or ‘Have you considered that?’ ”
One of the most exciting aspects of the program for Whitfield is that Team Next is allowing him to branch out and delve into a wide variety of sports, including some about which he knows very little. But the common thread is that all of the athletes he’s working with want to get to the top of the Olympic podium, as he did. So regardless of the technical skills needed to excel in the various sports, Whitfield hopes he can light the fire within the athletes to be the best they can.
“I specifically asked to be involved across the spectrum of different sports,” he explains. “I want to know all about fencing and all about snowboarding and all the different sports. I really enjoy learning about what process they go through and what journey they take. I loved training. I loved preparing. That was my big joy…doing the preparation, and that’s something I want to pass on.”
When Whitfield reflects on his illustrious career, he has no trouble putting himself in the shoes or skates or skis of the athletes he’ll be involved with. He was young once, and one of the things that allowed him to reach the heights he did was that he received help along the way.
And now he wants to be that guiding light for a whole new generation of Canadian medal hopefuls.
“I had so many great sounding boards, and I was never afraid to ask questions,” he recalls. “[Canadian Olympic rower] Marnie McBean is the standout for me. And Greg Bennett is an Australian triathlete who took me under his wing when I was 21, and there was never a question he wouldn’t answer; he always had time for me, and just the way he trained was an example.
“But when I look back now, Marnie was the standout, over and over again at every Olympics, through thick and thin. It’s easy to celebrate with people when they win, but Marnie was there both times when I came up short, too. She’s been an incredible mentor.”
Given Whitfield’s track record of achievement, chances are he’ll be one as well.
The thing he’s curious to see, though, is if sharing his experiences and working with high-level athletes in this fashion gets his competitive juices flowing again. When pressed on the issue, Whitfield admits he hasn’t entirely closed the door on racing again.
“Right now, I’m mostly retired. I don’t have the gumption to say I’m fully retired, but I’m not training very much right now,” he says. “But Canada’s men’s triathlon team needs to step up. We have lots of talent on the women’s team, but the guys need to step up. That’s why I stay semi-retired, because if they leave that door open forever, I’m going to consider kicking it in.”
For now, he’s happy to be a big part of Team Next. But inspiring others may turn out to be a way that Whitfield ultimately winds up inspiring himself.