Keith Elliott at Large: The life of relentless O'Reilly: Britain's speed skating champion is on course to retain his short-track world title in Peking next month

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The Independent Online
I ENDURED weeks of mocking telephone calls after the Albertville Olympics. To anyone who would listen, I had gushed: 'Don't go out that night. If you do, make sure you're near a television. Hang out the Union Jack. You're going to watch one of the world's greatest athletes win a gold medal for us.' And what happens? The fastest speed skater in history falls on his backside in the sport's only individual event of the Games.

All things considered, it should have been a pretty good tip. How many British performers since civilisation began have been confident enough to predict 'I will win. I'm the world's champion'? But in less time than it takes to unfold The Independent on a crowded train, Wilf O'Reilly joined that long, long list of less than glorious British flops.

Or did he? Brummy O'Reilly, now 28, recalls coming back into the changing-rooms and being told that he had only a few minutes before the B final race. 'I said: 'Tell 'em I'm injured, I don't want to skate.' But as soon as I said it, I thought that if I didn't go out and win that B final, as far as everyone else was concerned, I had failed.' So he did skate, and he did win, and he collected a diploma (which is awarded at the Olympics down to eighth for those who don't get a medal). But though the bruises have long gone, the film has shown that he got two hefty (and illegal) pushes and that fall still hurts.

Speed skating is not new. Samuel Pepys wrote about skating races in St James's Park, and a world championships has been going since 1893, though short-track is a comparative newcomer with the first world title in 1978. The first artificial ice-rink, the Glaciarium, was opened in the King's Road, in London, in 1876. Despite those multicoloured Lycra outfits, short-track speed skating is a distant cousin to the sequinned glitz of figure skating. It's a sport for fitness fanatics who combine lower and upper body strength with exceptional stamina and tremendous speed. Over 100 metres, O'Reilly on skates would probably not beat Chris Boardman on his Lotus, but Linford Christie would have to be at his best to keep up.

Blimey, O'Reilly] That's pretty hard to believe. How can a half-pint like him (he's only 5ft 7ins) travel so fast and yet squat-lift nearly 300 kilos? He recalled: 'At the World Championships, two much larger Koreans were looking up at me on the podium and I could imagine them thinking: 'How come a little squirt like that can beat us?'.'

Well, it's all down to a nightmare programme of cross-training six or seven hours every day, from cycling to running and lifting, and of course skating far and fast. Such a punishing regime is vital, O'Reilly believes. His sport can involve 16 races from 500 metres to 3,000 metres in just two days, which means he has to work on both endurance and explosive training. 'I don't enjoy the training, but I hate losing far more.'

When he entered his first World Championships at the tender age of 17, he was devastated to finish only 12th. 'My expectations were that I was going to win.' For the boy wonder, it was a shock as sharp as falling through the ice on a frozen pond.

'People think you can get away with two hours training a day. At top level, that is a joke,' he said. But it was a joke that took him a couple of years to learn the punchline. In 1983, he finished 10th, but the following year at Peterborough, he took silver at 1500 metres and was fifth overall. Two more fifths, in 1985 and 1986, made him determined to put all his efforts into winning the title. He left his job as a groundsman at Aston Villa (Ron Saunders set up his first sponsorship) and headed for Canada.

The Canadians were the best short-track speed skaters in the world and O'Reilly hoped the experience would rub off. Instead, he finished 14th in the 1987 championships. (He blames jet lag problems brought on by constant return flights to England.) 'Afterwards, I said to one of the British officials: 'If I ever finish 14th again, I will pack it all in.' That still stands.'

Short-track speed skating was a demonstration sport at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Three weeks beforehand, at the World Championships, O'Reilly recorded his best performance yet: a fourth overall. But the Olympics started disastrously when he fell in the 1500 metres. 'All the confidence I had built up was gone. Archie Marshall, the national team coach, sat with me until 4am talking. He was a real inspiration. He told me: 'You have the ability, but you have to believe in yourself.'

'Later, we sat in the washroom watching my washing going round, and I suddenly said: 'I'm going to win.' And that's how it was. I knew I was going to win the 500 metres before I got on the ice.' He broke the world record, and went on to break it in the 1,000 metres, too. Later, he spoke to his mother, to find she was so convinced he would win, she had sealed the prediction in an envelope four days earlier.

Those wins gave him the breakthrough (if we don't count the little matter of eight national titles and three European wins). He was runner-up in the 1990 World Championships, winning the 500 metres (his best event) and in 1991, in Sydney, he picked up golds in the 500 metres, 1,000 metres and finished third in the 3,000 metres to take the overall title. Is it any wonder he fancied his chances in Albertville.

By now, O'Reilly had moved his base to the Netherlands, where facilities are far better, and acquired a Dutch girlfriend, Monique Velzeboer, herself a speed skating champion. The United Kingdom has just 54 ice-rinks. At one stage, O'Reilly drove nightly from Birmingham to Hull to take advantage of free ice time between 12.30am and 2.30am.

With an elite grant from the Sports Aid Foundation, a car from Peugeot and healthy backing from Reebok (he's probably the only athlete the group sponsors who doesn't wear the company's plimmies for his sport), it's easy to think that he's now leading the life of, well, O'Reilly. But all his sponsorship money goes on 'buying ice' at around pounds 60 an hour.

If he's going to win the world title again next month in Peking, he will need lots of ice time, and not just any old ice. Practising on public rink ice is like taking a Ferrari across a ploughed field. Ice is hard, soft, oiled or a deionised variety, which has all the impurities taken out, creating a very fast track - and that's what happened in Albertville.

'It was the fastest ice I'd ever been on. There's was hardly any chance to practice - I had to travel for two hours to get an hour of ice time - and it was a totally new experience. There were lots of falls. I was just not used to travelling at that speed. But I won't ever be caught out like that again.'

Brave words. But competition is stiffer now, with even unlikely countries such as India and Mexico getting their skates on. And he has to take on nations such as Korea, where top skaters can practise on deionised ice constantly and winning a gold medal guarantees dollars 2,500 ( pounds 1,800) a year for life.

It must get harder, year after year, to continue that relentless training with his 30th birthday creeping nearer and nothing much on his CV but the ability to travel very fast in circles. (That's why he's doing a business and finance degree in his spare time.)

But O'Reilly really does have an edge, and not just the one on his pounds 500 hand-moulded boots. From the age of six, he took up figure skating, and he reckons those early years grafted on an agility that others still don't have. 'I have no facilities, no good ice, but I'm the best in the world. I'm not being big-headed or arrogant, but there's nobody I can't beat.' Is it tempting fate to tip him for the 1994 Winter Olympics?

(Photograph omitted)

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