Building a better Olympian mind – Part 1

BEIJING 2008

Eight years later, standing sweating under the hot Chinese sun, Simon Whitfield looks down at the silver medal that dangles from his neck and shakes his head at the memory: the young pup of 25, rolling along toward the finish of the Sydney triathlon, pain-free and seemingly without effort, so intoxicated by the moment that he felt obliged to share something with the man he was about to beat out for the gold. “I turned to [Stephan] Vuckovic, the German, and said ‘We’re leading the Olympic Games,’ “recalls Whitfield. “I actually said that out loud.”

On this day he’s sporting a shiner–courtesy of a collision at the final swim buoy that knocked loose his goggles and left him to navigate the homeward leg blind. His legs and back are starting to ache from the 40-km bike ride. And what was said this time, as the racer from Victoria tore off his sun visor and started an all-out sprint to the finish of the 10-km run, was far less family friendly.

In three Games, Whitfield has sampled the full range of Olympic experiences.

In 2000, he was the surprise victor, rated such a tong shot that only two Canadian journalists bothered to go out and watch the race live. In Athens, he was a favourite who failed to deliver, finishing 11th, joining the large herd of Team Canada goats. But in Beijing, Whitfield was the best thing of all–an inspiration. An athlete who, in very un-Canadian fashion, expressed not just a hope, but an overwhelming desire to return to the podium. Someone who took all necessary steps to get there, using teammate Colin Jenkins as a domestique to stay in position during the swim and bike–and becoming the first to admit to employing that strategy in a triathlon.

A man who spurned all doubts and excuses, overcoming the searing heat by dumping bottles of water on his head and willing himself to believe that he had done enough training to survive. The fierce competitor who in the final kilometres twice clawed his way back into contention, then started sprinting 800 m from the finish, intent not just on winning, but on punishing his rivals.

The path to Olympic success, says Whitfield, is relatively straightforward

–“Be relentless. Get obsessed. Stay obsessed”--and harder than hell to follow. “Any time I want to back off in training and not do that next set, I think, if I’m not doing it, someone else is.”

Canada’s final tally of 18 medals in Beijing–three gold, nine silver, and six bronze–ties this country’s record in Barcelona as its second-best showing ever in a non-boycotted Summer Games. (In Atlanta, the total was 22. Los Angeles, where the Soviets and their allies stayed home, provided 44.) An accomplishment that’s all the more noteworthy given that this team seemed destined for disaster, getting shut out during the first seven days of competition. After years of futility, there was finally promise in the pool and on the track, as well as a first-ever individual equestrian gold, by Eric Lamaze.

But the statistic that will keep the Summer Olympians warm during the next 18 months, as Canadians lavish attention and money on the hopefuls for Vancouver 2010, is what officials blandly term the “conversion rate.” In Beijing, 67 per cent of the 27 individuals and teams rated as legitimate Canadian contenders actually reached the podium. Four years ago in Athens, where the team collected just 12 medals, the figure was 34 per cent. It’s a six-medal improvement, but more crucially, a difference in who is winning them–these are the athletes that the Canadian sports system has focused its resources on. The competitors who are living up to the country’s–and their own–high expectations.