Simon Whitfield, Canada’s Olympic Gold Medalist in the 2000 Triathlon, is truly one of Canada’s athletic heroes. Whoever would have guessed that in 1992, when Canada hosted the World Triathlon Championships, Simon would not be good enough to make our junior national team. But eight years later, when three billion people were watching, Simon struck Gold in the world’s toughest sporting event.
Have you ever been cut from a school or community sports team? You probably know the feeling, chatting nervously with friends/fellow competitors, anxiously waiting in the school hallway for the posting of the “Final Team Selection List”. You fast-forward, quickly scanning the names, that uncomfortable lump in your throat, while quietly praying to see your name on the list. We’ve all been there, even top Olympians, even Simon Whitfield.
As Canada’s first Olympic Triathlon Head Coach, and owner of a motivational health company called Personal Best, Barrie Shepley knows all about “going for your own gold”. In the late 1980’s, Barrie helped to create a national youth triathlon racing series called “Kids of Steel”. The concept of the series was to offer fun and participatory triathlons for kids from 6 to 18 years of age. Distances were short so that anyone could complete a race with a minimum amount of training. Many very interesting kids have participated and graduated from the Kids of Steel Triathlon Series. In Sharbot Lake (near Kingston, Ontario) a young fourteen year old boy named Simon Whitfield completed his first short triathlon race. Simon entered the race simply to socialize with his buddies on that long, hot weekend in August.
Just think of some the reasons why you might go for your own gold in a chosen field. There could be social reasons; health and fitness goals to achieve; you might want to travel the country or the world; you dream of meeting awesome members of the opposite sex; you want to test your strength and abilities against other competitors. What about wanting to be the best in the world? What about wanting to be the best you can possibly be?
During high school, Simon was a very talented runner but he did not receive any medals at provincial championships and his swim/bike skills were very average for his age group. Sometimes our perception of high school athletes is slightly out of proportion with reality. Not all athletes have muscular definitions similar to those displayed on the pages of “Muscle and Fitness”. At sixteen, Simon didn’t actually portray the profile of a soon to be Olympic Gold Medalist athlete.
Whether you are going for gold in sports, academics, art or drama, there are some criteria necessary in order to achieve success. All top achievers regardless of their field of excellence would have to agree on the importance of: goal setting and visioning; excellent instruction and feedback; hard work and practice; and the ability to perform. If you were fortunate enough to watch the Olympic Triathlon event in Sydney you will agree with me, I’m sure, that Simon is not only a gifted athlete able to withstand intense pressure but he is truly a performer. This is one of his greatest attributes. When you think about it, we perform every day in a variety of scenes either created by ourself or others. Whether it be accomplishing a challenging science project, persevering through household chores, practicing a sports technique time and time again until you commit it to memory, plowing through Shakespeare for the all impressive “A” in English – you are performing. You will need commitment to succeed in any field. You are your own Director and Producer and you can choose to cast yourself in the lead role every time! The results of your performance are not based on who sees or hears you or even how your audience responds. Your results are based on what you choose to give. It is within each of us to be winners. Forget the loser image, replace the “L” with a “W” and think winner.
Simon stresses the importance of loving what you do. If you love what you do, it will sustain you when you get a disappointing grade on your math test, get cut from the hockey team or don’t get the audition callback. Only one person can be the best in the world but everyone can love what they do. Simon believed in himself wholeheartedly on that important race day which is a powerful motivating force.
As Barrie Shepley says: “I rarely see a successful person that doesn’t set goals. To get into University it may take an 85% average. To make the provincial swim championships it may mean swimming under one minute for 100 metres or to make the band you may have to successfully play a dozen songs competently. Each of these is quantifiable which can be broken into “baby steps”. Visualize yourself as a winner, set your goals and expectations realistically and don’t be afraid to move ahead with baby steps.
Excellent instruction and ongoing feedback are part of your journey to achievement. Simon travelled to Australia where he was assured to get the best coaching and training possible. At 15 years old, Simon moved from his hometown of Kingston, Ontario to Sydney, Australia. Barrie remembers Simon as always asking questions, always wanting to perfect a swim stroke or a running technique. He even purchased a video camera when training in Victoria, B,C, in 1998 to video himself and his teammates during training sessions. With the swim as Simon’s weakness, he decided to focus on swimming which is now his favourite sport. Often, people spend their time and energy focusing on those things they are great at and subsequently neglect the things they are least comfortable with. If you are strong in mathematics, do you double your energy in languages? Have you ever heard yourself saying,” I ‘m no good at math and besides I’ll never really need it once I leave high school?
Success is based on a continual series of ups and downs and it is the same whether you are an Olympian or a high school athlete. When you look closely at some of the top athletes in their field, they never quit or make feeble excuses. They reevaluate and refocus and learn from mistakes. Simon’s success in Sydney came from his determination to learn from his mistakes over many years. As late as August, 1999 Simon was ranked 70th in the world and was not even slated to be a competitor at the 2000 Olympics. He never gave up on himself or his dreams!
An experienced coach stresses the importance of hard work and practice in making up for lack of talent. Without a doubt, there are gifted people, born with an apparent inherited skill or ability. Each of us could name famous musicians, artists, scientists and athletes who have become icons and role models. But they are few and far between and if they don’t apply themselves and if they take their gift for granted, they too will never reach their potential for greatness. While Simon trained with many athletes that are more genetically talented than he is, few have trained harder. Often, he was the first swimmer on the deck and the last one out of the pool during drills. Honest focused effort can make up for a significant lack of talent. “Focus” is a key word. How often have you spent hours at your desk staring at homework to find you have accomplished very little? Hard effort is rewarded when you are focused on the task at hand whether it be completing your French assignment, practicing the trombone or rowing in the pool. Regardless of economics or the cost associated with your area of interest, no one but yourself, can take away your desire to work hard and excel.
Excellence in any field requires people to perform. A person needs to be more excited about participating than worried about the outcome. When you step up to the plate, strut your stuff. With three billion people watching and 500,000 spectators lining the triathlon course, few individuals will face such an immense audience. Barrie Shepley was on the course sidelines in Sydney and he noted, ” I was amazed to see many of the world’s greatest athletes looking terrified and afraid of failing. On race morning Simon looked relaxed and totally in control. As we arrived at the race site, Simon had on his headphones listening to funky music. The power of the mind and the love of competition were the two factors that helped the 25 year old Simon Whitfield become Olympic Champion. A dozen other athletes had better race records than Simon but on the day which was the most important to perform – Whitfield showed he was the athlete most ready to “perform”. He didn’t allow a weak swim, a bike crash, or 49 of the best triathletes in the world to distract him from going for gold”.
Everyone can achieve their Personal Best. Be passionate about what you do. Define your goals by finding something that is meaningful to you; look at how you can accomplish those goals and visualize being excellent at them; prepare for the obstacles along the way and develop a plan which will allow you to focus; and then surround yourself with supportive friends and family who have similar passions. Be your own best cheerleader. Always cast yourself in the lead role because you can deliver a world class performance and achieve your own Gold!