O'Reilly seeks break in the cloud: Stephen Brenkley meets the Olympian whose ideal survives a terrible ordeal

REALITY in one of its colder forms intruded on Wilf O'Reilly's love affair with the ice 46 days ago. It was there that his other love, Monique Velzeboer, like him a wondrously fast speed skater, crashed into a barrier during practice. She broke both her wrists and, much more seriously, her neck. Monique is paralysed and will probably never walk again.

'Sport at the highest level is a false world,' O'Reilly said last week, reflecting on the grotesque accident, during a promotion trip to London. 'Sometimes you tend not to have the problems which are there every day in the normal world. If you asked top athletes at an Olympic Games what would be the worst thing that could happen all of them would probably say not to win. Well, it doesn't seem such a big deal now.'

But O'Reilly, a devoted skater since he was six, a double gold medallist when short-track speed skating was an exhibition event at the Calgary Winter Olympics and world champion in 1991, has decided to compete in Norway later this month. Last weekend, having spent the greater part of each day for six weeks at Monique's bedside - 'You want to know how hospitals are run? I'm your man,' he said with dark humour - he took part in a low-key two-day event in Sweden.

He won on the first day against poor quality opposition but he knew that all was not well, that his mind, where Olympic medals are won and lost, was awry. Then, on Sunday it happened. It did not strike him like a bolt of lightning, it enveloped him gradually like the sun peeping through a cloud. O'Reilly came off the circuit and felt ready for Lillehammer.

'I'm human. Of course I'm not going to say that what has happened won't have an effect,' he said before returning to Holland where he and Velzeboer, the Dutch No 1 at the time of her accident, live for much of the winter. 'It should have an effect but I know I can focus it.

'At maybe a lesser level, redundancy has hit a lot of people. It does different things. Some get in a terrible state, others accept it, ask what they can do to make things better, get on with it. I'm the sort to get on with it. I wouldn't just go to the Olympics to be in the village and compete.'

At this last statement he stopped himself, apologised and remembered Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. 'Look, of course taking part is the important thing,' O'Reilly said, but he wouldn't go if he thought it was just to take part, if you knew what he meant. You knew.

He is remarkably phlegmatic about the accident. It was Monique who couldn't walk, who would spend six to twelve months recuperating in hospital. It was Monique for whom there could be no building up of false hope of ever regaining the use of her legs. But he knows too that it is Wilf and Monique, a couple for six years, who have to rebuild their lives together.

There is not a trace of self-pity, of the understandable why-did-this-have-to-happen-to-us syndrome in him. There is a calm about the man which, you suspect, has helped him when the going has got tough around a tight bend. To show that he has accepted it, that he is getting on with it, he has already contacted Peugeot, one of his sponsors, about developing an air bag for barriers which inflates on impact. 'We have to live with it, to accept what has happened and go on from there.' If he is raging he is doing it in private.

Wilf O'Reilly was raised in Birmingham, the son of an American father and an Irish mother. He is 29 and the only British speed skater that most people in this country have heard of (the only other speed skater they may vaguely recall is Eric Heiden, the American who won five gold medals at a single Olympics in 1980, but his discipline was the long-track variety). Perhaps partly thanks to O'Reilly's example, there is now another Briton, the 21-year-old Nicky Gooch, recently crowned European champion, who also goes to Lillehammer.

But for the moment Wilf's the man. At Calgary in 1988 he was first in both the 500 metres and 1,000 metres. It was hardly a rise to overnight fame but it helped to secure some sponsorship and it ensured that when Albertville came round in 1992 he was billed by his compatriots as a sure winner.

For two days in pubs they talked of Wilf as though he were part of the national sporting furniture and there were ice rinks on every corner. He lost in both events, both times falling, both times the victim of a push, accidental or not. He was a nobody again, and weren't ice rinks for hockey or Torvill and Dean, they asked.

'Some of the difficulty with that was that in the papers and on the telly it came across that I would definitely win,' he explained. 'Well, sure, I had a good chance of winning. But short-track speed skating isn't like that. A lot of things can happen. If you draw number four, for instance, you're at an immediate disadvantage. You've got to get a good start. There is an element of chance, isn't there, in every sport? But I should have tried to educate the media who could then have educated the public just a bit.'

It has become closer at the top, so that if the Olympics were held every month for a year they might produce a different winner each time. The art of peaking has therefore assumed a fresh importance. Which brings Velzeboer's traumatic accident to mind again. How can he possibly be ready to reach for gold in a fortnight?

To do so, as he said, he will have to dig deeper than he has ever done, but he has no doubts about his inner resources. If his mood swings were measured with a spirit level the bubble would be right in the middle. Yet on the ice he has that rare, indefinable quality, the desire to win and the capacity to make it seem the most important thing there is. And though he now knows differently he must hope the instinct remains.

Having begun figure skating at the age of six, O'Reilly was 13 when he turned to speed skating, inspired by the Birmingham Mohawks, a rapid and respected team in their day. He must be the only ice sports competitor in Britain who attributes part of his success to accessibility. The rink was round the corner from home. Not that he would have it so easy now. The rink has shut. 'We used to have practice late at night but you couldn't have expected accessibility and timing,' he said.

There was no particular moment he decided that he would be a skater. It evolved, he wanted to do it, he had to find out how to do it. On leaving school he was a groundsman at Aston Villa and Birmingham City football clubs for a time. He trained with the players occasionally, having played in the same school football team as Mark Walters and Tony Daley.

The other big catalyst in O'Reilly's career was Bob Copeman. He met him 10 years ago when Copeman was training some 400-metre runners. Copeman had already stipulated to anybody who listened that if he had the talent in his charge he would make a champion. When he found O'Reilly he had the talent. Still, others were unconvinced.

'When he was in Calgary,' Copeman said, 'only two people knew he could and would win, me and his mum.' His charge is a tremendously dedicated trainer, up at six, as the best who want to stay the best usually are. Training consists largely of skating round and round the 111-metre track, varying the speed perhaps but essentially doing the same thing.

Copeman and O'Reilly have harnessed computers in an attempt to find the perfect build and fitness level for a short-track speed skater. Four years ago they ran into trouble. O'Reilly's thighs grew so thick that he could barely cross his legs on bends. He had to lose the thickness but maintain the strength.

He is smaller than you might expect at 5ft 7in. His body fat is a mere 4 per cent, which has the advantage of ensuring his fitness and the disadvantage of making him feel the cold on the rink. He is spurred to get warm by going faster, quicker.

If he fails to strike a medal in Lillehammer, O'Reilly will be disappointed, but he has every intention of being back at 33 in 1998. 'Linford did it, didn't he?' he asked. 'And I'm not getting any slower. I keep improving.'

And wherever and whenever he competes he will carry on to the track another commodity: intimate knowledge of how devastating the real world can be.

(Photographs omitted)

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