Cricket: Speed Skating: Gooch takes title but feels pressure at the cutting edge

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Nicky Gooch will set out for the winter Olympics as Britain's undisputed No 1 speed skater after winning his fifth national title this weekend. It is not a surprise - but it is a relief. Mike Rowbottom reports from Guildford.

It would have taken an untimely injury or an act of God to prevent Nicky Gooch confirming his Olympic participation at the weekend's tesa British speed skating championships.

Thankfully for Britain's hopes of a medal at the Nagano Games starting in February, neither occurred.

The 24-year-old from Barnes, south west London, who won a bronze at the last winter Olympics, managed to win his fifth national title at the Guildford Spectrum despite failing to reach one of the four finals of the day.

But if anyone doubted whether Gooch was keyed up for this purely domestic event, they would have been reassured by his reaction after a miscalculation had caused him not to qualify from the 500 metres semi-final. The arms were up - not in triumph, but frustration.

"I made a move on the inside and caught David Allardice's skate," Gooch said. "If you make one mistake like that in a 500 metres race, you can't recover. You are moving at around 30 mph.

"I am as nervous for the British Championships as I am for the Olympic Games because it's very important for me to win. The event is on television, so people know all about it, and if you don't win it there is a stigma. I felt that in 1995 when I didn't win. I knew then how much it meant to me."

Speed skating will be one of the prime beneficiaries of this week's pounds 350,000 National Lottery award to British skating. It is clearly one step ahead of other domestic sports, as these were officially billed as the 1998 national championships - due to a stack of fixtures in the new year involving World Junior Championships, European Championships and the Olympics, the event was brought forward by a month.

This Olympic year finds Britain without the publicity supernova of Torvill and Dean, and also without the genial and charismatic Wilf O'Reilly, now retired from speed skating and working in a different capacity - he was co-commentating for BBC on Saturday.

Which leaves Gooch feeling slightly uncomfortable.

"I know people will think I'm one of the favourites for a medal in Nagano, and that concerns me because of the pressure it creates.

"Four years ago in Lillehammer I was unknown to people. All the pressure was on Wilf O'Reilly and I came through to get a medal.

"But since Wilf has retired all the pressure that was on him has switched to me. You have to try and put it out of your mind, otherwise it can make you nervous. I felt some of that tension in the Olympic qualifier last month."

Tension or not, Gooch's third place at that qualifying tournament in the Hague not only satisfied the selection criteria on his own behalf, it opened up another individual place for a British skater. Second place went to 20-year-old Matt Rowe, but it was his namesake, Matt Jasper, who got the place alongside Gooch.

Jasper, a 25-year-old from Nottingham, finished outside the top three for only the second time in his senior career, a performance that was due at least in part to an ear infection.

But his clear second place behind Gooch in this season's rankings, and his victory in the team trials at Guildford in September, assured him of his place.

Debbie Palmer won the women's title with maximum points, but frustratingly she will not be able to challenge for a medal in Nagano.

She missed out on Olympic qualifying by one place in the Hague last month after being disqualified as she attempted to force her way to the front in her opening heat. The fact that she could have gone through comfortably by staying in second place is no doubt a thought that has occurred to her more than once in recent weeks.