London 2012: Final Olympics for Clara Hughes, Simon Whitfield, and Alexandre Despatie

Donna Spencer
The Canadian Press


LONDON—They’ve carried the Olympic load for Canada over multiple Games. For a few of them, London was their last.


Triathlete Simon Whitfield, cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes, diver Alexandre Despatie and paddler Adam van Koeverden were prominent faces on Canada’s 2012 Olympic team coming into these Games.


They’re recognizable to Canadians because of their durability, performances past and present, and the profile they’ve built up over the years.


They spoke for the Canadian team in London, drawing on their experience to provide a window on what goes through the hearts and minds of athletes in the defining event of their careers.


This was six Olympics, both winter and summer, for Hughes. Make that four for Whitfield and Despatie and three for van Koeverden.


They’re friends, judging from the way they talk about each other and the Twitter traffic between them.


“I’m just stoked to be mentioned in that group,” Whitfield said. “You spend time around Alex and Clara and that group of people, that’s a great group.”


It was the final Games for Hughes, 39, Whitfield, 37, and 27-year-old Despatie. They have 10 Olympic medals between them, including two gold. None were able to cap their Olympic careers with one in London.


You could include swimmer Brent Hayden in that group as well, although the 28-year-old’s narrative is somewhat different. The Mission, B.C., athlete captured his first Olympic medal at his third and final Games, winning bronze in the 100-metre freestyle.


“You spend some time around Brent Hayden, he’s just a big, gentle, giant,” Whitfield said. “A great dude.”


Van Koeverden is 30 and that’s young in kayak racing. The man who beat van Koeverden for gold in the 1,000 metres was 36.


The owner of four medals now, van Koeverden would continue to be the face of Canada’s Olympic team should he choose to continue to 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.


It sounds as though the Oakville, Ont., paddler would miss having Despatie, Hughes and Whitfield on the Canadian team with him.


Van Koeverden shed a tear while speaking of Whitfield’s race in London, which ended early when the triathlete crashed out during the bike leg. Van Koeverden wanted to have Whitfield’s name on his boat for the kayak final the day after the men’s triathlon.


“I didn’t have marker so I just wrote it with my finger on my (boat) deck,” van Koeverden said. “And I thought ‘This one’s for the Whitfield legacy.’”


Whitfield put an exclamation point on his legacy, taking to task the coach and some of the support staff around teammate Paula Findlay in women’s triathlon. Findlay, 23, finished last after dealing with a hip injury that had lingered for over a year.


Wielding the clout that comes with Olympic gold and silver medals, Whitfield issued to wake-up call to those tasked with developing a young triathlon talent who can be a medal contender in 2016.


Hughes and van Koeverden are both ambassadors for Right To Play, an organization promoting development through sport. They spent eight days in Mali last year.


After two cycling bronze and another four medals in speedskating, Hughes ended her Olympic career finishing fifth in the time trial. The Glen Sutton, Que., cyclist raced with a cracked vertebra suffered in training this spring.


“It didn’t matter to me that she came fifth,” van Koeverden said. “I was like ‘Whatever, she’s the best.’ I don’t care where she comes, she’s amazing. I’ve learned so much from her.”


When Whitfield asked Hughes how she felt about the result of her last Olympic race, he was inspired by the answer.


“She said, and these were her words: ‘I lived the Olympic deal. I gave my everything. I’m happy.’ As Clara is always able to do, she’s able to verbalize exactly the way I thought,” Whitfield said.


Despatie may compete at the world championships in Barcelona next year, but diving is a young man’s sport because of the pounding the body takes when hitting the water.


The Laval, Que., athlete has literally grown up in front of Canada’s eyes, starting in 1998 when he won Commonwealth Game gold as a 13-year-old sprite. He was the first Canadian man to win Olympic medals in diving with silver in both 2004 and 2008.


Whitfield and Despatie exchanged tweets following their events earlier this week. Despatie said it was “an honour and privilege to have been an Olympian with you.”


Despatie’s training for these Games took a hit because of a head injury he suffered during training in June. Fluently bilingual and an aspiring actor, Despatie’s profile extended beyond his home province of Quebec.


“Alex is one of my best buddies, an amazing guy,” van Koeverden said.

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