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London Olympic Preview – Whitfield and Findlay Lead the Way

Whitfield and Findlay Lead the Way

One is in the midst of launching into her career. The other is in the midst of yet another Madonna-like reinvention of himself. One hopes that she can regain the form that saw her catapult to the top of the world standings just a year ago. The other hopes to regain the form that seems to arrive every four years at the Olympics. One, in theory, just needs to regain some consistency to regain her position as a podium threat. The other says he’s going to have to “throw a haymaker” to add another medal to the gold and silver ones he’s already earned, making him the most successful Olympic triathlete ever.

As crazy as it sounds, Canada couldn’t be in a better spot heading into the 2012 London Olympics. When Triathlon Canada announced last year that they were preselecting Paula Findlay and Simon Whitfield spots to the Games in August despite the fact that neither had met Tri-Can’s automatic qualifying criteria, the message was clear: Whitfield and Findlay were our strongest hopes for the podium in London and they should be able to focus on that race alone rather than spend the early part of the season trying to get themselves a spot at the starting line.

“It’s still kind of a weird concept for me that I’m going to the games,” the ever-humble and modest Findlay says. It shouldn’t be, but while the rest of the world is all-too-aware of the 22-year-old’s talent (she’ll be 23 when she lines up in London), she genuinely seems surprised when she beats some of the world’s best.

“I know I have the potential to win, but I never expect to. I have so much respect for my competitors and I never expect to win,” she says. “I’m still so new to it and I’m not that confident a person so when I line up next to these athletes I don’t look at them and think ‘I’m going to beat you.” Even on the run I don’t always have the most confident conversations with myself, but I always have more than I think I do when it comes down to the last kilometre.”

At the start of last year’s World Championship Series (WCS), despite all those conversations, Findlay managed to unleash an incredible kick that saw her take the first three races of the series and launch herself to the top of the ITU’s World Cup Standings. Then, a week before the Edmonton World Cup event, where Findlay was being billed as the hometown hero, disaster struck.

“I felt something in my hip during a run, but I wanted to power through it because I really wanted to race in Edmonton and then I really wanted to race on the London course. Things kind of escalated and got worse – I couldn’t race in Edmonton and three weeks went by and I was still pretty injured. I wanted to go to London and do the course for practice for next year. I had a pretty disappointing result and my ranking slipped down to second or third. When I was getting ready for Beijing (the final WCS event) I was mentally pretty tired and frustrated, then I crashed three days before the race and couldn’t finish. I needed to give my hip a rest, so I decided not to race the Pan Am Games.”

After a good break last fall, Findlay returned to training. She continues to have therapy on her hip, but now it’s just for preventative purposes. While the season was obviously a frustrating one for Findlay, in the end that annoying finish might just pave the way for a successful run at a medal in London. Those three WCS wins put Findlay in the hot seat as a Canadian Olympic contender – even the Globe and Mail ran a front page story on the red-headed Albertan. Rather than endure more than a year of media hype, Findlay might just be able to sneak into London under a tiny bit less pressure.

“I won on the London course the year before (2010) so going into the Olympics as the two-time winner would have been a lot of pressure,” Findlay says. “The injury has taken a lot of the pressure away from me and the media has backed away a lot. It was kind of nice – it took the stress away. Even this season it’s not as fresh in people’s minds that I got off to such a great start last year. It’s maybe a bit of a blessing in disguise.”

Findlay is also starting to realize how big a deal the Olympics truly are. “I wanted to take it as another event in the series, but it’s not. It’s an event that comes every four years, so I can’t just think of it as a world championship or another World Cup. It will have a different feel. I don’t know what to expect because I haven’t done it before.”

Rope a Dope

While Findlay hasn’t been to the Olympics, she certainly has the ability to benefit from the advice of one of the most experienced Olympic triathletes in the world. Simon Whitfield burst onto the Canadian sports-hero landscape with his impressive gold-medal sprint in Sydney in 2000, ensuring himself a spot in triathlon history as the first male Olympic champion. Eight years later he came oh-so-close to winning another gold with his dramatic sprint to the line that netted him a silver medal to go along with the gold he won in Sydney.

That dramatic medal finish in 2008 was, in many ways, a vindication for Whitfield, who felt that many had written him off as an Olympic contender after a disappointing finish in Athens four years before. In some ways those critics weren’t completely out of line – what they didn’t realize, though, was just how hard Whitfield was willing to work to reinvent himself as not just a great runner, but as a phenomenal swimmer, biker and runner. To do that, though, he put himself through a rigorous five-year plan that included 1,550 swim workouts.

“You do 1,550 swims over a five year period,” Whitfield says of his “learn to be a great swimmer” program. “You do the math. To do that, you are pretty much swimming seven days a week. You can’t just say you’re going to work on your swimming for the next four months. It is one thousand, five hundred and fifty opportunities to improve your swimming over a five-year period.”

The intense swim training suddenly put Whitfield in elite swimming territory, allowing him to exit the water with the lead group at virtually every triathlon he entered. In many ways he set up the ultimate role-model for the man who has become the outright favourite for the Olympic title in August, Alistair Brownlee. The young British star is an exceptional swimmer who can run like the wind – his 29:04 10 km split to win the world championship in 2009 has set the gold standard for triathlon runs. (While Spain’s Javier Gomez is every bit as talented in all three sports, he lacks the incredible finishing kick that Whitfield and Brownlee can muster, which makes it difficult for him to win tactical races, which events like the Olympics tend to be.)

After spending all that time working on his swimming, Whitfield has suddenly found himself needing to improve his running again.”I worked so hard on my swimming to get myself in the position that I’m now able to get myself in races that I let my running slide a little bit,” he says. “It wasn’t until I sat back and looked at it objectively that I saw that I was swimming better than I was running. It was almost like I had my head down and I was working so hard on my swimming and working to get in the front pack that I hadn’t noticed that it was my running that was paying the price. Now we’ve had to adjust to compensate a little bit.”

So, once again Whitfield has found himself having to reinvent himself. Once again he’s found himself in a position where he feels like certain people have written him off. (Who those people are remain unknown to me – no one I spoke to for this article was willing to count Whitfield out as a contender this August.)How much of that is what helps motivate him to train is something only he can answer, but it certainly appears like the fire and passion remains for Whitfield to go for broke in London.

“That’s part of the process of having to reinvent myself and going back to what was once my strength,” he says. “I believe that I can do things on the track that few people in our sport can do. I’m getting back to that and the things that made me successful.”

As he heads into what surely must be his final Olympic games (Whitfield says he’s planning on moving to longer-distance racing after London, although he says he’d love to still be around for the Pan Am games in Toronto in 2015), Whitfield says he’s feeling pretty good about how things are building up towards the big race this August.

“Last year finished well,” he says. “We’ve been trying a lot of different things since 2008 trying to stay relevant, I suppose taking some risks. Some of those didn’t work out, but now I feel like we’ve refined what we’re doing and figured out what works, who works and who to work with. Everything is geared towards getting to the Olympics in absolutely the best spot.”

He admits that there have been some “frustrating moments in the last few years with left and right turns I was convinced to take. Those weren’t the best decisions and I knew I should have stuck to my instincts. We made a few wrong decisions and I look back at that with a bit of frustration, but “c’est la vie.” I look back and now I’m happy with where we’re at.”

There’s no one who knows how to get ready for a major event like the Olympics as well as Whitfield, although he’s quick to admit that at 37 he can’t maintain the race intensity he once could. With a wife and two daughters to pay attention to, not to mention the other sponsor and career responsibilities he must pay attention to, he can’t race at a high intensity all year long. Rather than head to the Pan Am Games to try and ensure Canada a third Olympic spot last year, he took a well-deserved break for a few weeks before he began his long build up for the Olympics. ┬áHe continues with his boxing analogy:

“I don’t have six combos in me anymore to throw out through the entire year and be fighting at the front. I can’t just go out six to 10 times a year, but I can throw a haymaker in August and see. I am perfectly prepared for that haymaker to flail away and have me fall to the ground, but that’s the way I’m going to approach it. My priority is my family and while I might get criticized for not going to some of the races at the end of the year, I’m not prepared to be the person who runs around chasing down three spots for Canada at the Olympics. Part of that is respect for the Brownlees and Javier (Gomez) and realizing that I just can’t do that.”

He’s right, too. In many ways Simon Whitfield will be taking on a bunch of athletes who are every bit as talented as himself. They look, well, not unlike the 25-year-old who unleashed a fearsome sprint over the final few hundred meters of the Olympic triathlon in Sydney. That sprint was so devastating that Stephan Vuckovic didn’t even try to go with the Canadian – he looked over his shoulder, realized he was guaranteed a silver medal, and began one of the longest celebration finishes in Olympic history.

Who knows if this reinvention will work. Who knows if Paula Findlay will capture the magical fitness that sent her to the top of the Olympic distance triathlon world last year. You’d be crazy to bet against either of them, though.

Kevin Mackinnon is the editor of Triathlon Magazine Canada.