Impact: Simon Whitfield’s 2009 Hy-Vee Win

Triathlon hit the bigtime when the image of Simon Whitfield winning $200k in a sprint finish was beamed to mainstream sports outlets all over the world.

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12 years ago, Canadian Simon Whitfield charged to the finish line of the 2009 Hy-Vee ITU Elite World Cup in one of the most thrilling ends to a triathlon in history. With a $200,000 grand prize on the line, the battle for the big check was intense, and came down to a sprint finish in the final 200 meters, which Whitfield, 34, won in stunning style over Australia’s Brad Kahlefeldt, Germany’s Jan Frodeno, and New Zealand’s Kris Gemmell, by the slimmest of margins: .01 second. The photo of that scrum—Whitfield pumping a fist in victory; Frodeno grimacing with defeat; Kahlefeldt sandwiched between them in a dive towards the tape—remains one of the most iconic images of any sport, and the story made mainstream headlines around the world. Here’s a look at how that moment came to be and how it impacted Whitfield’s career—as well as how it inspired two other generations of successful Canadian triathletes in Taylor Reid and Paula Findlay.  

Photo: Delly Carr/World Triathlon

Simon Whitfield: “There was nothing perfect about Hy-Vee”

“People look at that photo and they think: That’s the perfect race. A fairy tale finish. But honestly, there was nothing perfect about Hy-Vee. Leading into the race, I was having a terrible year. I’d been suffering from allergies. I dropped out of a race in Washington, D.C. the week before, and made a last-minute decision to fly to Des Moines, just in the hopes of salvaging the season. But I felt pretty bad the entire time. If you go back and watch the race, you’ll see that on the run, I wasn’t anywhere close to the front until the last loop. I figured it would be fine to get into the top ten. But then, I noticed the guys in the lead were slowing to practically a jog. It was as though the hype of the event and all of the money on the line caused so much anticipation and anxiety that no one wanted to commit to winning it. No one had the courage to go for it. 

“But there I was, 13 years into my professional career with the experience to know how to navigate the technical last portion of the run course. If it was a long straightaway, maybe things would have transpired differently. But I had the athleticism to navigate those final turns. I came from a soccer and hockey background, and it was just like going into a corner on a hockey rink. 

Photo: Delly Carr/World Triathlon

“When I caught up to the leaders, I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you really going to just let me get you?’ They waited too long, and should have known better than to let me in on a sprint. And, at that point, it was all about settling the scorecard with Jan Frodeno. We had the sprint finish in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he beat me. I wanted a chance to get that sprint back. The sprint finish is what I built my career on. 

“I look at my reaction in that finish line photo, and I’m not super proud of that celebration. Honestly, it brought out a little of the worst of us. I was celebrating the financial win, but there are many other performances in my career that stand out for me, moments that others may think are less of an accomplishment. And it didn’t even become much of a financial gain for me: I ‘won’ $200,000 but took home much less than that after taxes. 

“So while the 2009 Hy-Vee race didn’t change my career financially, it did prolong my time in triathlon. Before the race, I was ready to bow out and to spend more time with my kids. Instead, I got another taste of success, and I suddenly saw myself as a contender once more. And I never really raced that well again. So, in hindsight, the race extended my career in a bit of a negative way. [Editor’s note: Whitfield retired in 2013.]

“But it’s fun to look back on, and it’s meaningful to hear how the finish impacted others. Just look at Paula Findlay, or Taylor Reid, or Lionel Sanders, whom I believe is the greatest Canadian professional triathlete ever. Knowing that I helped pave the way for them by winning in such a way…that does make me proud.”

Taylor Reid spent time in the ITU before moving on to a long-distance triathlon career. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images for Ironman

Taylor Reid: “I drew on that core memory to win.”

“When I think back to the 2009 Hy-Vee race, the first thing I remember is that iconic picture of Simon grabbing that banner. That pure energy. I didn’t know much about Simon at the time, but I soon learned about him through my coaches Paulo Sousa and Barrie Shepley. They both worked with him, and they’d tell me about how Simon would analyze the race course before any event. The course in Des Moines was especially technical, and they’d explain how Simon went to the course the night before and memorized the corners. He knew that if he wanted to win in a sprint finish, he had to be first into a corner and find the best line out of it.

“That idea has always stuck with me. Just last year, I entered a draft-legal race against kids who had much better wheels than I did as a long-distance guy. But after watching Simon and remembering what he did that day, I went to the course the night before and mapped it all out. It was a downhill finish with a hard left-hand turn, and I knew I had to be in the lead at that turn to win. My race was nowhere near the level of what Simon did in Hy-Vee, but I still drew on that core memory and channeled his energy to get the win that day.”

After rising through the ranks on the Canadian National team, Reid switched to long-distance racing in 2014 and has 11 Ironman 70.3 podiums to his name. 

Paula Findlay of Canada celebrates winning the Dextro Energy Triathlon Women's Race in Hyde Park on July 24, 2010 in London, England. Photo: Mark Wieland/Getty Images

Paula Findlay: “I aspire to run like Simon.”

“I can’t remember where I was when Simon won Hy-Vee in 2009, but I’ll never forget the photo of the finish. The emotions of that true fight to the end. Every time I see that picture, even 12 years later, it’s amazing. Seeing Simon win that margin with so much on the line, it was just so much more meaningful than a World Cup win. Plus, it meant a great deal to me, as a Canadian, because the better success Simon had, the more support younger generations got from the Canadian federation. Back in 2000, I watched Simon win gold at the Sydney Olympics at home on TV, and that became a big reason I got into the sport. I looked up to him throughout my whole career, and I still do. A lot of my success as a triathlete is because of Simon’s legacy.

“After the win in Hy-Vee, Simon became my training partner and mentored me through many things. So I got to see how he worked behind the scenes. His diligence and attention to detail was incredible. He could anticipate how any race would play out. He was very forward thinking.  

“Plus, I think Simon is one of the most beautiful runners, and I love watching him run. He always looks so comfortable, smooth, and in control. To this day, I think about him while I’m running. I aspire to be that way…to run like Simon.”

A breakout star on the ITU scene from the time she was a teenager, Findlay suffered a series of setbacks that eventually led her to racing long-distance events. Most notably, she won the 2020 Challenge Daytona in December, taking home a $100,000 check for her efforts.