Olympics: Alex applies logic in British wonderland

Coomber greets the golden girl tag with a wry smile. Mike Rowbottom speaks to her
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The Independent Online

Sensibly pony-tailed, her scrubbed face flushing slightly at the press attention with which she is still not entirely easy despite almost a year of being built up as Britain's big medal hope at these Games, Alex Coomber addressed the inevitable questions facing her upon her arrival in the Olympic Village.

Could she, would she, win gold in Wednesday's bob skeleton event? Could she, would she win gold for the faltering British team here? And, perhaps most importantly of all, could she, would she win gold for the increasingly desperate British media?

The 28-year-old RAF intelligence officer, who ranks as world No 1 after winning a third successive World Cup title this season, proceeded to explain her situation with characteristic calm logic – the kind of thing, in fact, that you would hope for from people chosen to work for RAF intelligence.

"I know I can win a gold medal," she said. "But then there are a lot of women out there who know exactly the same as well. If everything goes right for me and I do two good runs, then yes I know I can come away with a gold medal, but so does Maya Pedersen, so does Michelle Kelly, so does Ekaterina Mironova. I'm always saying, hundredths of a second is what it comes down to in our races. So, yes, I know I can win a medal and I will try my best, and I will try my best to win a gold medal, and I can't do any more."

Coomber knows all too well the impossibility of forecasting her event with any certainty, having missed out on the world title for the last couple of years, most recently to Pedersen, her Swiss friend and rival, by a total of just seven hundredths of a second.

But she was on firmer ground dealing with the second part of the enquiry, one prompted by the less than dazzling start – apart from perhaps the women's curlers – which Britain has made to these 19th Winter Games.

"Obviously I think the British team would be very happy if I won or if I came away with a medal," she said with a tight smile. "But that's not the reason I'm racing. I'm racing because I've performed well and got myself here and I can beat all these people and I'll try and do it again. That's why I'm here. I'm not here to save the British team."

So there. It's official. Alex Coomber is not Wonderwoman, merely a woman capable of doing wonders. Whether she will end up helping Britain to approach the target set for them by their chef de mission Simon Clegg of producing their best medal showing since the 1948 Games in St Moritz, which means effectively bettering two bronzes, remains to be seen.

If mental attitude has anything to do with it, however, Coomber's chances are as solid as the ice she is preparing to traverse at such dazzling speeds.

She has already shown herself capable of blocking out the potential distraction of being surrounded by large crowds and being broadcast to many countries, as she points out herself in relation to the Goodwill Games of 2000, where she won gold. "There was actually a crowd of 10,000, but I don't remember one person being there let alone 10,000," she said. "When you are travelling at 80 mph two inches from the ice, you've got to focus on the two inches above the ice that you are travelling on. You can't look around and see everyone, so you do end up kind of being in tunnel vision."

Before the Games got under way Britain's newly elected International Olympic Committee member Matthew Pinsent, who will seek a fourth successive Olympic rowing gold in 2004, spoke about the effect the early British successes at the Sydney Games had had upon him and his team-mates. They had no effect.

In Coomber's case, tunnel vision is both a literal and figurative requirement, but it is something with which she is entirely easy.

"Well," she says when asked if results so far, which she has been following through the papers and TV at the British holding camp in Calgary, have influenced her preparations. "You go back to the adage: control the controllables. Whether people do well or badly, I have no control over it. I can only control myself, my equipment and my performance and that's what I will do. So either way that's not going to affect me."

The important thing for her is that she now feels fit after the trouble she had with her lower back in November, which caused her pain which even she described as "agonising" when she launched herself on to the bob.

"I'm in the best shape I could be in," she said. That is not good news for Pedersen, Kelly and Mironova. For the British media, however, it sounds like sweetness itself.

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