Whitfield wins silver in triathlon, Germany takes gold

The Canadian Press

8/19/2008 10:15:44 AM

BEIJING - No catching lightning in a bottle this time for Simon Whitfield.

Tactics, both smart and controversial, and sheer determination gave Whitfield a silver medal in men's Olympic triathlon Tuesday eight years after he won gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.

When the sport made its Olympic debut then, Whitfield was able to wing it and win a wild free-for-all.

But the strategy of triathlon racing has changed, and Canada seems to be on the cutting edge. Canada was the only country to declare prior to the Olympics it was going to sacrifice a willing teammate to get Whitfield back on the podium.

What percentage of Colin Jenkins' work as Whitfield's footsoldier on the 40-kilometre bike led to the silver medal is now a matter of debate for the triathlon community.

Acting in a capacity known as a domestique, Jenkins stayed at the front of the massive peleton, that included almost all 55 riders by the third lap, to cover any breakaway attempts and draft for Whitfield.

But it was all up to Whitfield to start the bike in contact with the leaders after a 1,500-metre swim in the Ming Tombs Reservoir.

He continually reeled in the front-running trio on the 10-kilometre run in punishing conditions of 28 C and humidity over 80 per cent.

"Having been through this eight years ago and to be able to fight my way back onto the podium, that was hard, that was so hard," Whitfield said. "This was a harder race than Sydney was."

The 33-year-old from Kingston, Ont., looked like he was getting dropped by world champion Javier Gomez of Spain, Olympic silver medallist Bevan Docherty of New Zealand and Germany's Jan Frodeno as the four entered the transition zone on the reservoir's dam for the last time.

But Whitfield rolled up behind them on the backstretch of the run and powered past all three before the turn about 100 metres from the finish line.

He was running for gold again, but Frodeno had something left in the tank and nipped Whitfield with 40 metres to go.

They paid a heavy physical price as Frodeno sprawled on his back past the finish line and Whitfield staggered across it ahead of Docherty.

"I tried. I tried really hard," Whitfield said. "For a moment there I thought I had it."

If he had to do it all over again, Whitfield said he would start his finishing kick at the same time because he'd been outrun too many times by Docherty.

"I wanted to discourage him and put it out there that if 'you're going to beat me, you're going to hurt way more,"' Whitfield explained. "I had to get rid of him.

"Jan just went and the way he went, he was just going anyway. He would have done it with 20 metres to go or from there, so I made him make a decision early.

"I could see him on my inside there and I gave it one more crack just to see if I could break him, but then you just start tying up and that hurt a lot."

After finishing 11th in 2004, Whitfield dedicated himself to strengthening all three disciplines of the sport, particularly the swim where he'd been weakest.

Canada qualified a full team of three men for the Olympics for the first time. Edmonton's Paul Tichelaar was 28th and Jenkins was 50th.

Whitfield was criticized for the appointment of a domestique, since Canada could have otherwise fielded another competitor ranked higher than Jenkins.

But the Hamilton native did his job as Whitfield's reliable helper on the bike.

Whitfield admitted to a few sleepless nights over the boldness of what the team planned and his perceived role in it.

"Canadians want medals and I got called arrogant and I got called cocky and I thought 'wait a minute. I thought you wanted us to win,"' he said.

"There's a Tragically Hip song `Courage,' and we had the courage to put it out there that this is what we wanted to do and Triathlon Canada had the courage to support that."

A strong swimmer and biker, but an average runner, Jenkins embraced his role as Whitfield's footsoldier.

"It just shows teamwork works and everyone who says it doesn't, they're just in denial," Jenkins said. "Look what happened. A medal. That's what we wanted."

Added Canadian men's coach Joel Filliol: "We wanted to control the race and not allow the favourites to get away and that's what we were able to do."

Although they weren't as vocal about it as Canada, New Zealand also worked together as a team to hoist Docherty back onto the podium.

The Canadian Olympic Committee rewards medallists with bonus money for the first time at these Games.

So in addition to the hug Whitfield gave Jenkins post-race, he planned to give the 25-year-old half of his $15,000.

"He's going back to university now and I'm sure that will get him started," Whitfield said.

Whitfield wants to race in a fourth Olympic Games in London in 2012, when he'll be 37.

"I want to be part of that just because people will think I'd be too old," he said. "I love this sport and I'm relentless about my pursuit of it."

While his surprise gold in Sydney made him a household name in Canada, Whitfield says he'll treasure his silver because now he has wife Jennie and daughter Pippa Katherine at his current home in Victoria with whom to share it.