Simon Whitfield of Victoria, likely racing for the last time at the place of his greatest triumph, was 18th Saturday in the opening race of the 2012 ITU World Triathlon Series in Sydney.
It was there, in the shadow of the Opera House, that the then-unknown Whitfield first burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere as the dramatic winner of the first men's triathlon gold medal awarded as the sport made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Summer Games.
Whitfield, 37, also silver medallist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is pre-qualified for the 2012 London Summer Games, so he doesn't need the qualifying points that were up for grabs Saturday.
But those points were crucial for Brent McMahon of Victoria and Kyle Jones, a native of Oakville, Ont., who trains in Victoria, as they look to lock down the final two Canadian men's berths for London.
"We gained some more valuable Olympic points for Canada, but an impressive Russian performance has bumped us from seventh country to eighth, but we still hold three spots [for London] just ahead of the Portuguese," McMahon said from Sydney.
"It was a tough race . . . but I will get some huge fitness gains. The goal is to keep pushing the fitness up on the path to the Olympics."
Steffen Justus of Germany won the race in one hour, 51 minutes, 4 seconds. The rest of the field was closely bunched as Jones was 13th in 1:52:03, Whitfield 18th in 1:52:20 and McMahon 20th in 1:52:22. Andrew Russell of Victoria crashed on the bike and was a DNF.
Whitfield spent a beneficial month training in New Zealand with the top French and Kiwi athletes at a place called Snow Farm just outside Wanaka on the South Island.
"My training is focused on improving as an athlete. With pre-selection [to London], I have the opportunity to do that," Whitfield said before heading Down Under. "There's a gap I need to close, and I think about it in every session."
Now that Whitfield is quietly closing that gap by climbing back into top-20 range, people are beginning to wonder if there is one more magical moment left to be pulled from that Olympic well. Whitfield is known as a big-event performer, shining when the spotlight is brightest. And the stage doesn't get any bigger than the Olympics, where the Victorian has managed to make quite the splash in two of the past three Summer Games.
The big story in the World Series women's race at Sydney was the absence of Paula Findlay, the Victoria-based former world
No. 1 who is battling a troublesome hip injury that has darkened her once-bright prospects for London.
With Findlay returning to Victoria a few days ago, the Aussie Erin Densham won Saturday at Sydney in 2:01:29. But there was a significant Canadian breakthrough with Kathy Tremblay of Montreal recording an eighth-place finish in 2:02:34 to move herself closer to London qualification. Lauren Campbell of Victoria was 24th in 2:03:28.
"I didn't think about all the [London qualifying] numbers today, but just to do my race," said Tremblay in a statement.
"But this was a really big day for me, and I'm halfway there [to London]. I'm so happy."
Findlay, who admitted her "confidence is at an all-time low right now," is pre-qualified for the Olympics. She need only concern herself with recuperating and getting healthy in Victoria and, hopefully, back on beam for London.
LONDON CALLING: Geoff Kabush, a University of Victoria mechanical engineering grad from Courtenay, and Max Plaxton of Victoria continue churning those pedals to London today in a UCI World Cup mountain biking race in Houffalize, Belgium. . . . BMX is now an Olympic sport, and Mischa Partridge of Duncan is among the four Canadians competing this weekend in the second UCI BMX SuperCross of 2012 in Randaberg, Norway. . . . Canada, with Rachel Riddell of Victoria in goal, requires a top-four finish in the nine-country final women's water polo Olympic qualifier to qualify for the London Games. The team opens group play today in Trieste, Italy, against No. 13 Kazakhstan.
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