Like many people from the Corner Brook area, I always thought of the iconic Simon Whitfield as one of our own.
I always got the sense he felt the same.
I’ll never forget the day in 2002 I watched him race past Hunter Kemper on the final leg of what Simon called the “toughest race in the world” here in Corner Brook. Watching the much smaller Whitfield blow past the menacing American, made me reflect on all the times I was called too short or small to excel in sports.
I had a camera draped over my shoulder, not long after capturing him break the finish line as a battered champion, allowing the Canadian time to catch his breath. Amazingly, I can remember thinking it looked like he could go another couple of hours.
He turned to me as I had my recorder outstretched, and I asked him about his race. He described his battle with the elements that made him label Corner Brook’s International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup Triathlon as the toughest, and he spoke of the great field of Olympic contenders he had to outlast. I felt he treated me no different than he would have the country’s greatest sports journalists.
However, it wasn’t until he spoke about the people that lined that race route that showed his true character.
“I really enjoyed just being in Corner Brook and enjoyed the tremendous fan support that got me to the finish line so quickly,” Simon told me after his win. “The crowd was just great, they really tow you along. Every time I came up to the crowd, I really had to keep myself under control because it’s tempting to just blast through there with all that support.”
It was one of those moments I also had to keep myself under control, as a journalist. To remain professional when you are still a fan can be a tedious chore sometimes.
In all, Simon raced in Corner Brook six times — winning twice. In interviews, he referred to our race as his preparation for the Olympics.
While the rest of the country probably only saw or followed Simon every four years, many of us in western Newfoundland, we kept a closer eye on him. We not only saw him race on television, but saw live that combination of strength and stamina pound the pavement like no other triathlete could.
That is why, when the Olympics rolled around every four years, people from this part of the country not only tuned in to see a medal hopeful, but to watch one of our adopted sons. Our tears were not only for the pride of our country, but we felt somehow a part of that golden moment in 2000 and silver in 2008.
Simon announced his retirement last week, leaving the sport he transcended as the greatest. He is definitely one of the most iconic triathletes ever, but also one of the most recognizable and accomplished Canadian Olympians.
Not bad for that 21-year-old who was eaten up by the “toughest race in the world,” and sat in a kiddie pool in a front yard of a Corner Brook house. He had given in that year, in a time before he started celebrating his races with champagne, and shared a beer with the owner.
It is definitely OK for him to drop out of the race again. Simon, there’s a whole family here in this area who would love to share another beer with you.