Cyclist claims Wales's first gold medal at the Olympics for 36 years

On a rain-lashed street in the shadow of the Great Wall yesterday, Britain won its first medal of the Beijing Olympics – a gold in the women's cycling road race.

Nicole Cooke, from the Welsh village of Wick, crossed the finishing line four hundredths of a second ahead of the Swedish rider Emma Johan, outsprinting her in the closing stages of a gruelling, three-and-a-half-hour, 126km race.

Cooke, 25, said afterwards: "We did it. It was perfect. It's a dream come true. I came over the line and I was just so happy. There were so many emotions coming out at once. I made so much noise because I guess that's the person I am."

It was probably just as well that her father, Tony, and mother, Denise, chose to watch on television at home in the Vale of Glamorgan. Four years ago Mr Cooke was detained by the Greek police in Athens after trying to paint her name on the tarmac, Tour de France-style, the night before she took part in the cycling road race. On that occasion Cooke could finish only fifth, but yesterday she spoke to her parents about her joy at becoming the first Welsh Olympic gold medallist for 36 years.

"When I called them after the race it sounded like they had half the village in the house," she said.

Mr Cooke said: "We had our fingers crossed, arms crossed, everything crossed. Our son, Craig, is in Australia and we were keeping in touch via text. When she crossed the line we went mad. We spoke to her after the race and she was ecstatic. We are so happy for her."

Mrs Cooke added: "I'm very excited. It is such a fantastic achievement for Nicole. This was the ultimate goal for her."

After the race Cooke's parents joined what seemed like every other resident of Wick, home to about 600 people, in the local pub, The Lamb and Flag. Mr Cooke said: "We had a lovely celebration in the village when she won the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester a few years ago and this will probably be a bigger party, because it's a long time since Wales had an Olympic gold medallist." That was Richard Meade in three-day eventing at the Munich Games of 1972.

Cooke's victory is the highlight of a career in which she has claimed gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and won the World Cup twice. She started her career with Cardiff Ajax cycling club. Reg Pharoah, the club's president, said: "She was about 10 and the first thing she said to me was that she wanted to be like Sally Hodge, the Welsh cyclist who almost became Olympic champion. Well, Nicole has outdone Sally.

"Nicole was always a fighter. She always had a look of grit and determination on her face. Come rain, hail or snow she used to cycle the six miles to school and back every day."

At 16 Cooke became the youngest winner of the Great Britain National Road Race Championship.

In the wake of yesterday's victory, Britain's 200th gold in total, Cooke was hastily installed by the bookies as a 16/1 shot to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

Cooke was supported by her team-mate Emma Pooley whose pacemaking role helped her to victory. Pooley finished in 23rd place, 30 seconds behind Cooke.

Cooke has grumbled about a lack of media coverage of women's cycling but this may change now. She is the first British woman to win Olympic cycling gold. The British cycling team is considered the best that the country has sent to an Olympics. Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Romero are fancied for success in the forthcoming track events.

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