Simon Whitfield credits play with pals for putting him on road to Olympic Hall
2000 triathlon gold medallist one of 7 individuals, 2 teams given Canadian honour on Wednesday
When discussing his Olympic dream, Simon Whitfield often circles back to playing pick-up road hockey with five neighbourhood buddies in the 1980s on Cooper Street in the heart of Kingston, Ont., where a pothole served as the centre-ice dot.
Whether it was there or a couple of blocks away on the frozen water of Lake Ontario, where they would test the ice with a drill, this is where the Canadian triathlete's path to Olympic stardom began.
"If I said I'll meet you on Cooper Street, they would be there. It bred in me this love of play, pick-up sport and community," Whitfield told CBC Sports on Wednesday before he was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame along with six others and two teams at the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.
While his friends went on to become bankers, musicians and tree surveyors, Whitfield made history in his Summer Games debut in Sydney, where he unexpectedly became the first-ever Olympic champion in men's triathlon in 2000.
Whitfield, who was 25 at the time, sat in 25th place after the 1,500-metre swim and 40-kilometre bike race. He unleashed a devastating kick in the 10K and passed his friend Stephan Vuckovic of Germany with about 200 metres left and crossed the finish line first in 30 minutes 52 seconds.
"I just had this mission and internal belief," Whitfield, now 44, said. "When I [took the lead] I thought, 'Here I am, leading at the Olympic Games.' I had a real love for doing it, enjoyed being there and wasn't consumed with all the pressure.
14 World Cup victories
"A wide-eyed kid with a big dream who loved playing road hockey around a pothole. I just had a naive and joyful opportunity. My folks always said to express your gifts. [My wife] Jennie and I give the same thoughts to our daughters [Pippa and Evelyn] who are going through their own journey of sport, competition, pressure and the anxiety and anxiousness that comes with it."
The 2008 Olympic silver medallist told a story of when he was a youngster and beat the older brother of one of his friends on a race around the block riding a banana-seat bike. His friends wondered if Whitfield had cheated and taken a shortcut through an alleyway but he said it was legit.
WATCH | Behind the scenes at the Olympic Hall of Fame induction:
"I remember thinking I was good at it and that translates, years later, to be that seed in a young kid's head that maybe I'm good at this, and those people in that legacy end up here today [in the Hall of Fame]," said Whitfield, the 2002 and 2009 Commonwealth Games champion who also had 14 World Cup victories and eight top-10 finishes at the world championships before retiring at 38 in 2013.
Whitfield, who now lives in Victoria, remembers watching the Olympics with his parents as a child and among his early recollections was Canada's Dave Steen winning a bronze medal in decathlon at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
"I wanted to hear the [Canadian] anthem and see the flag flying," he said. "My parents never asked how [my sister and I] did in sports. They just asked, 'Did you give a great effort today?' It was a key in my development that I've passed on to my daughters."
At the beginning of his acceptance speech, Whitfield deviated from sports, calling on Canadian politicians to expand the Canadian Trans Mountain pipeline, a controversial project in Alberta and British Columbia.
"Please work together on behalf of Canadians towards ensuring effective and affordable use of our micro resource endowments," Whitfield said. "Let this effort be guided and governed by local communities, Indigenous peoples with oversight from senior levels of government."
WATCH | Simon Whitfield calls for Trans Mountain pipeline expansion:
The 2019 class also includes:
- Alexandre Despatie (Diving: 2-time Olympic silver medallist)
- Christine Girard (Weightlifting: 2012 Olympic gold medallist, 2008 Olympic bronze medallist)
- Émilie Heymans (Diving: First Canadian summer Olympian to win medals at four consecutive Olympics)
- Women's 2010 Olympic hockey gold medallists
- Women's 2012 Olympic soccer bronze medallists
- Hiroshi Nakamura (Judo coach)
- Jack Poole (Builder: Largely responsible for landing 2010 Vancouver Olympics)
- Randy Starkman (Builder: Late Toronto Star writer)
Despatie of Laval, Que., won a silver medal in 3-metre springboard at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and earned silver four years later in Beijing after fracturing his foot just four months earlier.
The four-time Olympian added eight world championship medals before retiring in 2013.
"It is a privilege to be part of this class," the 34-year-old told the family and friends of his fellow inductees. "You're all amazing people.
""I have had the privilege to do what I loved the most for 22 years and had the honour of competing and representing my country on the biggest stage in sports. The hard work of myself and my team over the years made it a successful career."
WATCH | Despatie: Induction 'a bit overwhelming':
In 2012, Heymans became the first Canadian and female diver in the world to win medals at four consecutive Olympics. She won 10m synchro silver with partner Anne Montminy in 2000 and fours later with Blythe Hartley. Heymans, who lives in St-Lambert, Que., added a silver medal in the individual 10m platform in 2008 at Beijing.
"Sport gave me a lot, but above all, it taught me that even if I practiced an individual sport, it was thanks to an incredible team of people that I was able to make my dream of winning four Olympic medals come true," Heymans said.
Last December, Girard finally received her re-allocated Olympic weightlifting medals: Gold from London 2012 and bronze from Beijing in 2008 after being robbed by drug cheats.
On Wednesday, the mother of three said she spent many years believing she would never win an Olympic medal. But her parents never gave up hope.
2010 women's hockey team
The women's hockey squad blanked the United States 2-0 in Vancouver in 2010 for its third consecutive Olympic gold medal.
"After 2006 [in Turin, Italy] we lost a significant number of veteran players," said longtime Canadian forward Jayna Hefford, who was also inducted Wednesday into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. "We built a new identity and although we didn't have the results, it was part of the process [to winning in 2010]."
2012 women's soccer squad
At the 2012 London Olympics, women's soccer player Diane Matheson scored in extra time to lift Canada to its first Summer Games medal in a traditional team summer sport since 1936 in Berlin team to its first Summer Games medal.
WATCH | Matheson's top Olympic moment a no-brainer:
Nakamura, after arriving in Canada in 1968, impacted the advancement of judo in Eastern Canada by training and coaching several generations of athletes and coaches, including two-time Olympic medallist Nicolas Gill.
"During my career, I tried to live every day by the Japanese expression ichi-nichi issho. The translation is 'always try to have the best day possible and the combination of lifetime experiences will define your life," Nakamura said. "If you truly live this way, you will feel your life has value and fulfillment."
Poole was instrumental in bringing the Olympics to Vancouver in 2010. He died a year earlier from pancreatic cancer at age 76. The chair of the Vancouver Organizing Committee's board of directors co led the bid in 2003 with VANOC CEO John Furlong that eventually won the Games for Vancouver and Whistler.
"Jack believed in people and revelled in inspiring them to do impossible things," his wife Darlene said Wednesday. "The 2010 Olympic Games was always a journey against the odds, but Jack believed to the very end that Vancouver would prevail. He would be deeply humbled by this recognition."
Starkman, the late Toronto Star reporter, covered 12 Olympics in his 24-year career and conducted interviews about events nobody else was covering, according to his wife, Mary Hynes.
"I saw how hard Randy worked. I don't just mean late nights at the press centre [but] the way he'd show up at training camps," she said. "Or the way he would get to know an athlete's mom and dad. There was no one like him on the beat."
Also Wednesday, two-time Olympic boxer Mary Spencer was the recipient of the Randy Starkman Award from the Canadian Olympic Committee that recognizes an athlete who has used their sporting excellence to benefit the community.
Spencer receives Starkman award
A role model and ambassador for women's boxing, the 34-year-old native of Windsor, Ont., is a three-time world champion and five-time Pan Am gold medallist.
Spencer is a proud Ojibway athlete who has spent countless hours giving back to her community at Cape Croker, Kashechwan and other regions in northern Ontario.
"I wanted to start going back to my roots and going back," she said in a COC news release. "You hear problems that are facing First Nations communities, and what do you do? Bring your gifts and use them in a good way. And for me, it's sport."