Ice Skating: Exposure warms young blades

A new generation of speed skaters is forging ahead. Mike Rowbottom reports
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A chill wind blew speed skating some good this weekend. As the domestic sporting schedule receded in the face of wintry blasts, an activity which tends to receive publicity only in Olympic years gained unprecedented television air-time. The benefits of exposure...

Aptly enough, the face which presided over this year's British Championships at Guildford was that of Wilf O'Reilly. The man whose world and Olympic victories have raised the profile of British speed skating sharply from the horizontal in the last eight years was rinkside on Saturday as part of the commentary team for the BBC's Grandstand.

When his work was done, O'Reilly, now retired and running a television production company in the Netherlands, leaned down from his balcony over the skaters' enclosure he knew so well like a cherubic paterfamilias, exchanging good natured insults with the throng of juveniles, juniors and seniors seeking to follow his example.

As it turned out, the television people picked a good year. While Debbie Palmer and O'Reilly's successor, Nicky Gooch, retained their titles, there was an element of doubt which had not been present in 1996.

The challenge to Palmer, the 23-year-old European bronze medallist, seeking her sixth consecutive title, came from Sarah Lindsay, a 16-year-old from Surbiton, who beat her senior colleague in the last and shortest of their three finals, the 500 metres.

"Last year Debbie was skating by herself," said Lindsay after what was her first win at senior level in the national championships. "We weren't really competing with her. But I must have improved quite a lot, because I'm challenging her now."

Although Palmer, whose starting technique has been hampered by a leg injury, may have been erring on the side of caution in the sprint event, the positive way in which Lindsay took her chance augured well for her future career.

"It was a mental breakthrough for her," O'Reilly said. Last year Lindsay, whose blonde good looks appear perfect for potential sponsors, failed to find any backers from local businesses. Perhaps her televised exploits will convince one or two of them to reconsider.

Both women are looking ahead to November, when the qualifying event for the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano takes place. While Lindsay is likely to join Palmer in competing, she may find herself crucially dependent on her rival. If Palmer, European bronze medallist and eighth in last year's World Championships, earns a top 20 place as expected, it will guarantee Britain two female skaters in Japan.

For Gooch, an Olympic bronze medallist in 1994 and reigning European champion, Saturday's problems were largely self-inflicted. His crash in the penultimate men's event, which allowed Matthew Jasper to draw level with him on overall points, came as a result of him failing to tighten a screw which secured one of his skating blades.

Normal service was resumed in the final event, the 3,000m, where Gooch took his fourth title after holding off Jasper's challenge on the final bend. But while the pallid 22-year-old from Barnes was pleased to earn a fourth British championship, his preoccupation was with the potential financial problems he may face in preparing for the Olympic selection meeting.

Gooch is an Olympic and world medallist, yet he is obliged to train on his local Guildford rink at 12.30 at night, for the simple reason that he then gets the ice time free. His current grant from the Sports Aid Foundation will end in March, when responsibility will pass to the new National Lottery scheme. "If the Lottery money doesn't kick in straight away, I'm going to be in trouble," he said.

"I'm worried that there might be a funding gap in a very crucial part of our preparations. We have to be performing at the right time or we won't even qualify for the Olympics."

The way in which Gooch has taken over where O'Reilly left off in the past two years is seen by the latter man as a natural phenomenon.

"You are always going to have that relationship in any sport," O'Reilly said. "It was like that with Allan Wells and Linford Christie. Provided there is always someone there at the top doing it, it will always have a good effect on others."

And as Gooch, Jasper, Palmer and Lindsay proceed with Olympic aspirations, the next generations are pressing on behind. The juvenile title was won by Lindsay's 14-year-old brother, Matthew, spurred on by his sister's raucous encouragement.

His progress was made easier, however, by the withdrawal after two events of Joanna Williams - below senior level, all speed skating competition is mixed sex. Williams, one of seven children, all of whom are speed skaters, had a frustrating day as she attempted to become the first female to win the juvenile title. She had been on crutches until Wednesday after spraining her ankle in an event last weekend, and her injury contributed to a heavy fall in her first race. But those who know their speed skating predict that she will make a happier impact in the sport over the coming years.