Speed Skating: O'Reilly faces up to a conspiracy of the Fates: The world of Britain's former champion has turned sour but he is not giving up. Jon Culley reports

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WILF O'REILLY is a bright, intelligent man with a warmth and good humour that has endeared him deeply to Britain's small speed skating fraternity. So the picture of him slumped against the barriers at the side of the ice, tears coursing down his face, was all the more moving.

The setting was the British short- track championships. As 21-year- old Nicky Gooch, a dynamic new rival in a sport O'Reilly has dominated here for more than a decade, raced away towards his second national crown, the vanquished king had suffered the first crash of a night of disappointments.

O'Reilly, nine times British champion, did not make the medals rostrum at all, falling in three of the four finals that decide the championship and turning out in the last event only to help Gooch secure a world record time - unofficial in the absence of electronic timing - for 3,000 metres. Coming so soon after his double failure in the Winter Olympics, it was desperately hard to take.

But these tears were more than those of a sportsman bemoaning lost form and cruel fortune. Eleven weeks ago, Monique Velzeboer, the Dutch speed skater with whom he has shared his life for six years, crashed into a barrier in practice. She broke her neck and will almost certainly never walk again.

'After the first fall my emotions completely got the better of me,' he said. 'The whole trauma of the last three months came out and I was unable to control it. What with Monique's accident and the Olympics, so much has happened. It has been a pretty awful time and this has pretty much topped it all. I found it very difficult to focus on why I was here. I was really on a hiding to nothing.'

So why, knowing that, did he bother even to turn up?

'In hindsight, I might say that I should not have done it because there was always the risk of something like that happening. But that's not the kind of person I am. I think it was important that I did skate here because occasions like the British championships are what we do the sport for.'

O'Reilly, raised in Birmingham but based now in the Netherlands, will return for the world short-track championships in Guildford at the end of the month, not to skate for individual honours - Gooch has the sole British men's place - but to join the British relay squad.

For the moment it is back Amsterdam and a daily routine of hospital visits with a training schedule that naturally has had to be curtailed. In between, he has to plan the rebuilding of his life and career.

'It is a case of getting back to normality, although it is not really normality. Monique is in a rehabilitation centre, where she will be for between a year and two years. I'm driving maybe 100 miles a day to see her, then coming back and training. Plus I'm not sleeping very well.'.

O'Reilly is 29 and has won a world championship and, given his circumstances, could quit now with the sympathy and understanding of his sport. But a vision of the next Olympics is already the focus of his ambition. His elimination from both the 500m and 1,000m events in Norway, came down to damaged skates rather than any shortcomings on his part.

'I think the next Olympics is a good possibility. Since the accident I have not really had time to think about anything and there are so many things that are unsure about Monique.'

Having in mind Linford Christie, who went on to win the Olympic sprint gold after losing at the World Championships, he said: 'There is still so much that I have to offer.'