Runner's Web

October 7, 2000

Olympic gold medallist got hooked on triathlon as a 12 year old Source: CP - Sep 28 14:21

By Leanne Yohemas-Hayes

Ottawa (CP) _ Got running shoes? Have a bike? Like to swim? Then you're more than halfway to becoming a triathlete, says Simon Whitfield, winner of Canada's first gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

What sticks out most in his mind when he did his first triathlon at Sharbot Lake, Ont., in 1987 was the fun. He was just 12 at the time.

``I raced in a pair of boxer shorts that had little cows on them,'' he said in a telephone interview from Australia.

``I raced on my mountain bike. You don't need the specialized equipment.''

He said he liked the atmosphere and hanging out playing with his pals on the beach at the post-race barbecue. ``It was fun right from the beginning,'' said Whitfield, now 25.

``I quickly became a little triathlon groupie, knowing all the stats,'' he said. ``If I could have traded triathlon trading cards, I probably would have done that.''

Chelsea Lanos, 8, of Orleans, Ont., would most likely want his card. She has an autographed poster of Heather Fuhr and an autographed hat from Lori Bowden _ two Canadian woman who've won the Ironman triathlon.

Chelsea has already done a few triathlon races, as well as some practice ones in her pool and around the block.

Her father, Mike, laughs as he recalls a race this summer. After Chelsea finished the swim portion she started putting on her shoes without socks. He told her that might be a bit uncomfortable, and said it could take a minute to put on the socks.

Her reply came quick: ``Dad, forget the socks.''

Nik Southwell, 26, a training partner of Whitfield, will never forget the shoes he wore in his first triathlon in Beaverlodge, Alta., 16 years ago. It was an unusual race because it ended with the swim.

``I had tied my brand-new blue shoes that I bought the day before in double knots to make sure they wouldn't come off,'' he said.

``It ended up taking me forever to undo those double knots.''

The 10-year-old lost his substantial lead. ``By the time I undid the knots, the other competitors had got in the pool and had already finished the race.''

He wasn't discouraged.

Since he lived on a farm, Southwell used the fields as his training grounds.

``Wherever you live, you can manage to train,'' he said.

``I would bike out to the lakes and mountain bike anywhere. . . . When I went to high school I would ride my bike there almost every day.''

Southwell, now living in Edmonton, plans to move to Victoria in January to begin training full-time at the national training centre.

In the Olympics, the triathlon is 1.5-kilometre swim, followed by a 40-kilometre bike race and ending with a 10-kilometre run. It's only at the top level where drafting is allowed. This is where bikes follow closely behind each other, often in packs.

For those starting out, distances vary depending on age. Kids between seven and eight, for example, begin with about a 50-metre swim, then a two- to five-kilometre bike race and finally a 500-metre run.

Southwell says that aspiring triathletes should try to learn how to swim properly because it can be the most challenging technically.

But Whitfield, who has had to work hard on his swim in the last few years, doesn't think people should worry about specializing. This is a philosophy he got from his dad.

Whitfield's father wouldn't let him get serious about any one sport, although the young athlete was encouraged by coaches to stick to running.

``My dad just thought it would be a lot better for me as a person to not specialize and just enjoy any sport and not worry about the competitive nature of it,'' he said.

``That's what triathlon so embodies.''

Whitfield participated in a triathlon race series known as Kids of Steel, which started in some parts of Canada in the mid-1980s.

Since Whitfield's gold-medal win, telephones at provincial triathlon associations and recreation centres have been ringing off the hook with people eager to know more about Kids of Steel.

``Kids of Steel is a great opportunity for kids to participate in sport and that's all that matters,'' says Whitfield.

``From there, whether they stay in triathlon or branch out, they have a foundation of fun.''