Cycling: Rebecca swaps oars for pedals but can make history with more medals

After a silver at Athens in rowing, great Briton Romero is pursuing Olympic glory in cycling

Rebecca Romero may sound like a Latino screen star, but the nearest she has come to showbiz is being a dead ringer for Michelle, the brunette behind the bar at the Rovers Return in Coronation Street. Not that she ever sees the soap, even though she lives in Manchester. For Romero, 28 last Thursday, is one of the most remarkable sportswomen in the land, and has become so because of a 24/7 dedication that is reminiscent of Daley Thompson at his most obsessive.

In fact, "What would Daley do?" is a buzz phrase of hers as she goes about preparing to realise her dream of winning cycling gold medals, first in Beijing this summer then in London in 2012, with a single-mindedness that one former Olympic champion calls "frightening".

Chris Boardman, now British Cycling's director of coaching, says he has rarely encountered someone so motivated and focused. What makes this all the more unusual is that as far as Olympics go, Romero has already been there, done it, got the Athens T-shirt and a silver medal to drape over it. As a rower. And it all began in the Yellow Pages.

Now she is bidding to make history as the first British athlete to compete in the summer Games in two different sports, and should she win a second Olympic medal she will become only the second woman ever to have done so. The portents are good, as since swapping sculls for pedals less than two years ago she has become not only a British champion but acquired Word Cup silver medals in time trials and individual pursuit.

Sport, she says, is her all-consuming passion, which is why she has so little time for socialising, even less for soap-watching. She admits to feeling "a bit isolated" in her flat overlooking Manchester's Velodrome, having left behind her family and friends down south. "It had to be done. It sounds awful but I don't have much time for anything else, though I'm a brilliant time-waster. Most of it is spent washing kit, sorting out rubbish, cleaning the bike, eating and sleeping. I love my sleep. I might watch the occasional comedy DVD when things are a bit depressing."

This is the girl with a one-track mind. Every morning and afternoon, and sometimes evening, will find Romero – the Latin touch comes from her Majorcan father – hot-pedalling around the Velodrome in pursuit of a golden dream which began over a decade ago as a teenager at the family home in Twickenham.

She recalls: "At school [Wallington High, Surrey], I always enjoyed sport but there was never anyone to push me. I never really excelled at anything in particular, but when I was 16 we moved to Twickenham. As I wanted to try something new, I picked up the Yellow Pages, looked in the recreation section, and it was 50-50 between canoeing and rowing, because we were near the river. For some reason I picked rowing and joined the Kingston Club.

"I was lucky, because it was the top club for juniors in the country and it just went from there. One of the coaches there saw me in action and gave me the ridiculous notion that one day I could row for Britain. I thought he was crazy."

She says the coach, Ian South, probably turned her life around. "I was definitely suited to rowing because of my size and strength and I have a pretty tough mental attitude too." Within eight months she was selected for the pairs in the 1988 World Junior Championships. "Unfortunately I got quite a severe injury. My back went big time while I was training and they told me I wouldn't be fit. But being the stubborn person I am, I had two days of intensive physio, did exercises every hour all the way through the night and we made the final and finished second, but were disqualified because they said we had strayed out of our lane. That was quite traumatic."

Next year she won gold in the World Under-23 Championships. "Basically my aim was to get to an Olympic Games. I was too young for Sydney so my goal was Athens." She made it, winning silver in the quad behind the Germans. "I was gutted, because I didn't look at it as winning silver, but losing gold. We didn't do ourselves justice. To be honest I couldn't come to terms with just finishing second. I had that drive within me wanting to stand on a podium in first place because I felt I had the potential to be an Olympic champion."

Though disillusioned, she continued for another year, winning the 2005 World Championships in the quad. "It confirmed everything about the elation I knew I'd feel standing on that podium, but rowing had become a less than happy environment for me. I felt I wasn't in control of my destiny. Basically I had problems with the set-up of the team and how we were treated as athletes, so I decided to leave it all behind. I'm a perfectionist, and when you've made sacrifices but get up every day and feel you aren't enjoying it, it's time to do something else."

Eventually she contacted a friend who had mentioned she should think about cycling. "The next thing I knew I had a call from a British Cycling coach, Dan Hunt – who now coaches me – and I was being fast-tracked into the sport. He said cycling needed new talent and I jumped at the opportunity.I knew the environment I needed and the coaching I needed. Cycling provided that.

"When I did so unexpectedly well last year, it proved what I had been thinking was right. I'd take the option of finishing 10th in a cycling event knowing I'd lived every day of the past few years as I'd wanted rather than going through what I'd been going through and getting gold in rowing in Beijing. That's me. The two most successful sports in this country are rowing and cycling, but they are run very differently. Rowing still gets the success, but I question whether that will be a long-term success. Cycling's definitely is."

To qualify for an Olympic place in the 3km pursuit she will have to finish in the top 10 in the World Championships in Manchester. Her main rival is Wendy Houvenhagel, who came fourth in the event last year. "We work quite closely together, though we're both going for the same medal." Romero is also a friend of British cycling's brightest female star, the triple World Championship gold medallist Vicky Pendleton, often her room-mate at overseas events.

"In British cycling the feeling is that success breeds success and everyone is expected to medal. When you see what Vicky has done, that's something to aspire to. There are some exceptional athletes in cycling, and when you see someone like Chris Boardman, who's been there and done it, well that's a marker I've put down for my own career."

Although her immediate target is Beijing, London, she says, is feasible. "I'll only be 32, and that's not old in sport these days. It's well within me and it appeals to me. I know how much more I can improve by then."

Romero found time to obtain an honours degree in sports science and a diploma in marketing which she hopes to utilise when she retires. She is also an ambassador for the Samsung anti-youth obesity programme. "This is something I see as very important not just for society but for the future of sport, because I worry where the next batch of talent is coming from."

Romero's transition from champion sculler to champion cyclist is a compelling example of a magnificent obsession. Superhuman, some say. But not her. "I used to think Olympic champions were superhuman and it never figured in my mind that I could be like that. But now I have the same dreams, the same aspirations, the same drive and desire Daley had. And I've found that you don't have to be superhuman. Just dedicated."

Message from an icon: Chris Boardman

There is no doubt Rebecca will work as hard as it takes to achieve her dream, and in some ways that potentially could be her downfall. The trick is knowing when to stop. She must be aware not to push herself too hard. Her single-mindedness can be quite frightening and the success she has had so far might be her biggest challenge, as she expects so much from herself.

Such is her rate of progress that she may have to step back before she steps forward. I have been surprised how well she has made the transition from one successful sport to another, especially in the time-scale in which it was done. She has worked closely with her coach, Dan Hunt, and in some ways they are very similar in that they haven't been in cycling that long and are doing their learning together. This can be very effective. I've just read a book called What Got You Here Won't Get You There, which suggests that once you are good at one thing you just can't keep doing the same thing to achieve success in another.

She has so much passion but needs to change her way of thinking now into looking at things in much more detail. She's ready for a change of focus. She is on the right path but there will be some failure along the way. This is a healthy part of the process.

Rebecca is a tremendously accomplished athlete who knows exactly what she wants and she is right when she says that after Beijing, London is not beyond her. Absolutely. Our sport often has people doing well in their mid-30s, particularly women. Her enthusiasm, motivation and self-belief are such that age won't hold her back.

Chris Boardman, 39, Olympic individual pursuit champion in 1992, is British Cycling's director of coaching

The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games. The BOA also deliver elite-level support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information: olympics.org.uk

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