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Whitfield leads in Canadian team at opening ceremony

LONDON – A smiling Simon Whitfield led Canada’s delegation into London’s Olympic Stadium during a whimsical and energetic opening ceremony at the Summer Games on Friday.

Now it gets real for Canadian athletes.

“Enjoyed watching the opening ceremonies with teammates,” tweeted Canadian soccer player Sophie Schmidt. “But now bed time. Game tomorrow.”

Canada faces South Africa in Coventry on Saturday as the Games begin in earnest. The Canadians, who skipped the ceremony to prepare for the game, opened preliminary play earlier in the week with a loss to Japan.

Canada’s best hope for a medal on Day 1 is swimmer Ryan Cochrane in the 400-metre freestyle. The Victoria native won a bronze medal four years ago in Beijing in the 1,500, his bread-and-butter event.

An early medal would take the pressure off, especially after Canada was shut out for the first seven days in Beijing.

While the COC did not set a hard medal target during a news conference Friday, Canada’s Olympic team is aiming to finish top 12 in the medal standings.

“The only thing important here is we did everything to get prepared,” COC president Marcel Aubut said. “The moment we are going to win one is going to be a great moment.

“Of course, we all hope to have that as soon as possible, but we cannot do more than we did, turning every stone and being ready for any moment we have a chance. It’s going to be a great moment when that will happen and tough to predict.”

It wasn’t all business Friday for Canada’s athletes. Whitfield, Canada’s star triathlete, proudly waved the Maple Leaf as he led the Canadian contingent into Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony.

“What a rush,” Whitfield said. “It was so amazing and was such an honour to be here tonight leading all of the athletes that I respect.”

The sold-out crowd let out a roar when Canada was introduced as thumping dance music blared in the background.

Just under half of the 277 Canadian athletes who will compete in London were able to take in the ceremony. Many had to skip it to prepare for their events.

Veteran equestrian Ian Millar, who is competing in his 10th Games, has often skipped ceremony in the past but he chose to go Friday.

“This is only my second one since 1972, so I am a rookie to opening ceremony,” he said. “But one word: proud.”

The Canadian team members, wearing red and white jackets, khakis and white sneakers, waved to the crowd and took pictures as they walked along the infield.

“It was surreal and so much fun — so great to have my Canadian teammates behind me and just feeling the vibe,” said Canadian wrestler Carol Huynh, who won gold in 2008. “Last time, in Beijing, I was fighting for position with the water polo guys and this time I was right up front.”

Governor General David Johnston was in attendance along with other Canadian dignitaries.

Some of Canadian athletes were busy Friday before the ceremony even began. Toronto’s Crispin Duenas placed eighth in the ranking round of the men’s individual 70 metres archery competition with a score of 678 points. The main draw begins on Monday.

“Qualified in 8th spot! Pretty happy with a top 10 finish…for now. Perfect shooting conditions for a 338+340=678. My highest int’l score :D,” Duenas posted on Twitter.

In the women’s individual 70 metres, Marie-Pier Beaudet of Levis, Que., finished in 29th place in the ranking round with 645 points.

Meanwhile, Canadian boxer Mary Spencer moved closer to a medal without having to throw a punch.

Spencer got a first-round bye at Friday’s boxing draw. That put the native of Wiarton, Ont., a win away from a medal fight in the women’s 75-kilogram category.

“For sure, she has pressure but as a three-time world champion she knows a bit about pressure,” Canada’s high-performance director Daniel Trepanier said.

Custio Clayton of Dartmourth, N.S., will face Mexico’s Molina Casillas on Sunday in the first round of the men’s 69-kilogram event, while Simon Kean of Trois-Rivieres, Que., will fight France’s Tony Yoka in the first round of the men’s heavyweight 91-kilogram event.