Winter Olympics: Gooch speeds towards gold before swapping skates for pedals

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One of the few chances Great Britain has of a gold medal lies with Nicky Gooch, the speed skater with a bent for bicycles. Mike Rowbottom caught up with Guildford's blade runner as he warmed up for Nagano.

Nicky Gooch, Britain's leading speed skater, has long-term ambitions to compete at the summer Olympics in cycling. But for now, this 25-year- old from Guildford is seeking further medals on the ice to add to the Olympic 500 metres bronze he won four years ago.

To employ a little cycling terminology, however, returning to Nagano to compete in the XVIIIth Winter Games is, for Gooch, equivalent to getting back on his bike after a serious fall.

Last year Gooch competed in this Japanese city at the World Championships. The result, in his own succinct assessment, was "nightmare". A broken skate in the 1500m and a mysterious disqualification in the 500m effectively ruined the whole outing for Gooch. He can only hope that he has had all his bad luck here.

The whole feel of these Olympics is different for Gooch to the last one, as he reflected ruefully shortly before winning his fifth national title in December.

At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, almost all the British attention in his event was focused on the man who preceded him as national No 1, Wilf O'Reilly. The genial Brummie was expected to add an official Olympic title to the two gold medals he had won in 1988 when speed skating was included in the Games as a demonstration sport.

By the end of those Games, however, O'Reilly's ambitions in both the 500 and 1,000m had been frustrated by damage to his skating blades, and Gooch came away with a bronze medal in the 500m, having recovered from the disappointment of being disqualified from silver medal position in the 1,000m for pushing.

Now he finds himself as one of the handful of identifiable British medal hopes at these Games, a situation which leaves him feeling ambivalent.

In speed skating terms, Gooch thinks of himself as a middle-distance athlete rather than a sprinter, an all-rounder rather than a specialist speedster. "Things would have to go very well for me to get a medal in the 500 metres," he said, "but I am skating close to world record times."

And, indeed, he won the European title at the event last month, despite having his preparations affected by an untimely bout of flu.

But it is the 1,000 metres which remains Gooch's big hope, the event where he finished third in the pre-Olympic qualifying, which probably gives the best guide to form in a notoriously volatile sport.

"I'm looking at the gold medal this time," said Gooch, who now believes he is at his peak in a sport where the South Korean world champion is 18. "For most skaters, it is a downward curve from here," he said. "These will be my last Winter Games."

But not, he hopes, his last Games. His dream is to go on to the summer Olympics of 2004 in Athens as a cyclist - specifically, a mountain biker.

Cycling forms a big part of Gooch's training, and is something with which he has a great affinity. "I've raced with mountain bikes and I think if I dedicated myself to the training I could do it," he said.

You would not bet against this pale, determined character succeeding in that ambition. He has, after all, negotiated much difficulty and misfortune thus far in his career.

At the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, when he was 20, he had a calamitous fall. In the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics, he had a world 1500m record annulled because it was only hand-timed at the Nottingham rink where it was set.

And then there was the disqualification in the 1,000m final, where he was adjudged to have brought down the Canadian Derrick Campbell while overtaking.

"I always seem to do well when I am up against it," he said. "I don't know why. Maybe it's something to do with needing the adrenalin."