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Friday September 25, 2009

'He crossed the finish line with a smile on his face'

Athlete collapsed after 2½ hours of swimming, cycling and running in a competition

Special to The Globe and Mail

When Weston Bakeries of Toronto attempted to sell Christmas cakes to the up-market food retailer Marks & Spencer at its Toronto base years ago, the person responsible for quality control was Matt Tatham.

He duly informed the bakery giant that he was rejecting all of the cakes because he felt they were "overcooked." In response to the rejection, Weston made another pitch to Mr. Tatham, this time offering him a job with the company. Again, he turned Weston down.

From baking to the triathlon, Mr. Tatham was a perfectionist.

When he was 13 in his hometown of Woodstock, Ont., he applied for a job at a bakery and acquired a new appreciation for the smell of baked goods. He was turned down because the company couldn't pay him due to his young age. When he was old enough, he began working part-time for the Canadian Pacific Railroad with a pick and shovel, where one of his bosses said he was the best worker he had ever employed. He graduated from Woodstock Collegiate Institute, where he excelled at football.

Despite the early rejection at the Woodstock bakery, his love for the business prompted him to attend the University of Guelph, where he acquired a degree in food science, a specialty that led him to Marks & Spencer with responsibility for cakes and cookies.

Over the next 25 years he became a respected expert in his field in North America and business manager of Nealanders International Inc., a major food-service company based in Mississauga.

He also began competing in the triathlon, with great success.

He was a Masters world champion triathlete, who successfully defended his age-group title in Copenhagen this summer at the World Outgames.

"In the triathlon, Matt was an anomaly," said his friend Scott Simpson. "Whereas a lot of competitors are tense and stressed, he was the opposite, very laid-back. He was more concerned about the social aspect and having fun, but when he got near the finish line, he was very competitive."

His favourite sport was swimming, said his mother, Marnie, who had athleticism in her bones. His father, Sid, was a multisport athlete, too.

"Matt came from a very driven family," said running partner Ken Parsons. "His mother was a former coach of Canada's national diving team."

On Sept. 12 in the Ontario resort town of Wasaga Beach, Mr. Tatham participated in a HSBC Triathlon Series competition hosted by MultiSport Canada. He swam 1,500 metres, cycled 40 kilometres and ran 10.7 km in two hours, 30 minutes, 46 seconds. In a field of close to 300 competitors, he finished first in his age group and 40th over all.

"He crossed the finish line with a smile on his face," his mother said.

Only 30 seconds after completing the run, however, his smile disappeared and he collapsed. Within seconds, paramedics were tending to him, but he died 35 minutes later at General and Marine Hospital in nearby Collingwood.

"We don't know what happened," his mother said.

"For Matt, life was always about living in the moment," Mr. Simpson said. "He didn't worry about what might happen. He didn't suffer, and died doing what he loved doing. We should all be so lucky."

MATT TATHAM

Matt Tatham was born Nov. 2, 1957, in Woodstock, Ont. He died in Collingwood, Ont., on Sept. 12, 2009. He was 51. He leaves his parents Sid and Marnie, brothers Robin, Paul, Bill and Ian, sister Mary Ellen and 24-year companion John LaRocque.

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