Cutting across the smooth surface of the Inner Harbour on a standup paddleboard is a downtown commuter adjusting to life at his new office job.
Simon Whitfield, four-time Olympic triathlete and gold and silver medalist, paddles from Clover Point to the Bateman Centre, unencumbered by a freshly broken foot in an air cast and the very real possibility of going head first into the Pacific before he makes it to his desk.
When Canada’s most decorated triathlete announced his retirement from international sport competition on Oct. 23, he committed to a full-time focus at the helm of Fantan Group’s sports entertainment division. The father of two is no stranger to the business of sport, having put his name behind clothing and online triathlon training products in the past. He enthuses over the role he landed with a combination of six weeks’ university and 20 years on-the-job training. The benefits of his new career, however, haven’t eclipsed the challenges of leaving his former lifestyle behind.
“It’s a struggle,” Whitfield says. “I really like this office; I really like the creative outlet that it gives me, but I stare out the window and think of the days when I scheduled my entire day around myself and my family. I had myself to answer to and had high-performance sport goals. As complicated as sport can be at times, it’s also fairly simple: just do a lot of work.”
That constant devotion formed the architecture of what Whitfield calls the relentless pursuit, the kind of singular focus needed achieve physical excellence. As fast as he’s said goodbye to the starting line, the allure of paddleboard racing has emerged as the next possible all-consuming passion. With 3- and 6-year-old daughters at home, it’s a risk the Kingston, Ont. import would like to avoid.
“There’s a cost to a relentless pursuit. There’s a heavy cost and I’m trying to balance that like I haven’t before.”
Whitfield would rather keep the current balance – and his daughters sheltered from his reputation as a competitor.
“My house has very little memorabilia in it. They found my Olympic medals one day and asked what they were. I like that. I don’t want to have the expectation of them being little athletes, rather than pursue anything else they may find. Their mom is a really amazing lady and I think it’s important for them to have a balance of what they see her accomplishing and what they see me accomplishing.”
Whitfield’s a pick-up sport junkie and regular on the indoor soccer field, where his 38-year-old foot was no match for a bold move and wound up broken earlier this month. Even with a full schedule of recreational activities between work days and appearances, owning up to the fact he’ll never again have the optimal fitness he once had is an ongoing test for Whitfield.
The decision to retire has led Whitfield to reflect on the last 20 years as a triathlete, one free of the doping perils to which some of his cycling cohorts succumbed, but not without regrets.
“I spent too much time in my career, not just focused on what I was doing and staying on my path, but veering the bulldozer over to run over people who sometimes didn’t agree with what I was doing, or weren’t doing something how I would do it. If I’m honest about it, I spent too much time trying to beat into people how I would do it and that I was right.”
At a desk overlooking the harbour, Whitfield adjusts his injured foot, laughs and elevates the air cast adorned with children’s words and images of support. An unhappy face sits at the centre of the art for daddy from his girls.
“There’s a lot of venturing into the unknown in a creative environment like this and I enjoy it, but sometimes I miss the structure of the routine: eat, sleep, train.”