When Team Canada flag bearer Simon Whitfield set out on his quest to win the Olympic triathlon Tuesday, he knew the path before him would be long and gruelling.
Whitfield knew that from experience: At 37 years of age, these were his fourth Olympic Games.
"I’m just in a great head space, and I get there by experience," Whitfield said in the days before the race. That was also before that great head space — along with that of the nation that had been cheering him on — came crashing down as his foot slipped out of the pedal harness and he veered into a competitor during the bike-race portion of the triathlon on Tuesday.
Canada had been counting on Whitfield — the Olympic veteran and gold and silver medallist — to bring home a medal from London.
In fact, in the final week of the Games, Canada was leaning heavily on a core group of experienced athletes to boost the country's medal tally.
Among them was diver Alexandre Despatie, ten years younger than Whitfield and also competing in his fourth Olympics. But these were not to be his Games. The Quebec star, who took silver in the three-metre springboard at the last two Olympics, missed badly on his final dive Tuesday and finished in 11th place.
For better or worse, the Canadian Olympic team is "uncommonly blessed" with veteran athletes this time, the Calgary-based Canadian Sport Centre reported last month.
There are at least six Canadian medallists with four Olympics under their belt, including cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes, Canada’s most decorated Olympian, who earned her first medals in 1996 in Atlanta.
The average age of Canada’s team has crept up to just shy of 30, the CSC also reported, part of a trend among Olympians everywhere to stay in the hunt longer. (The average for the U.S. team, by contrast, is 27, but that still is older than previous U.S. teams.)
Much of this has to do with better training techniques to help experienced athletes keep their edge and win the competitions needed to make the Olympic team.
Some is part of what the CSC calls Canada’s "talent retention" policy, to help older athletes financially in order to gain an edge from experience.
Three other Canadian Olympic veterans with medal hopes were in competition Wednesday:
- Adam van Koeverden, 30, who won a silver medal, is in his third Games in kayak,
- wrestler Carol Huynh, 31, who won Gold in Beijing, is competing for bronze,
- and Olympic legend and equestrian star Ian Millar, 65, was competing in his tenth Olympics in the individual show jumping but finished back in the pack. (Millar is not the oldest competitor: Japanese equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu, 71, first competed in the 1964 Tokyo Games.)
For example, Despatie, who won silver in Beijing and Athens, was seen as a medal hopeful in London, but not a sure thing.
He was still recovering from a concussion he suffered after smashing his head into a diving board in June while training for these Games.
"I'm doing good,' Despatie said as he arrived in London last week. "The most important thing for me right now is to stay in the moment — not look too far ahead, definitely not look in the past."
Canada's Olympic veterans have delivered in these Games.
Swimmer Brent Hayden, taking part in his third Olympics, won bronze by putting in the swim of his life in the 100-metre freestyle. And Canada’s men and women’s rowing teams — squads that are a mix of experienced and rookie athletes — took silver in the men’s and women’s eight.
But there have been letdowns.
Canadians had hoped against hope to see cyclist Clara Hughes, 39, win a medal in London. Hughes has competed in six Games and won medals in both winter and summer.
Here in London, she finished out of the medals in both her events — the time trials and the women’s road race. There was no shame in either finish. but the hope was that Hughes could end her Olympic career with a medal and cement an even more honoured place in Canadian sports history.
The Olympics are all about highs and lows, ecstasy and heartbreak, of course.
Canadian shot-putter Dylan Armstrong, 31 — who missed a medal by the narrowest of margins in Beijing four years ago – came to London looking to put things right. It didn’t happen. He finished fifth.
At the other end of the spectrum, Antoine Valois-Fortier, 22, whom few regarded as a medal prospect, took a surprise bronze in judo. So did Sarnia's Derek Drouin, 22, Tuesday in the high jump.
But the greatest Canadian victory of the London Games so far was reserved for Rosie MacLennan, 23. Competing in her second Olympics, she surpassed a more experienced teammate to win a gold medal in trampoline, Canada’s first and so far only gold medal of the London Games.
MacLennan, a relative newcomer to the Olympics, had a few words of advice for the veterans who find themselves under pressure to produce a medal for their country.
"Obviously, there is going to be some pressure on the veterans or people projected as medal hopefuls," she said. "But I think the most pressure an athlete feels is from within themselves.
"You just really have to enjoy the moment, and be confident in your preparation and let the rest kind of go for itself."