Winter Olympics: O'Reilly seeking gain to counter the pain: British medal hope aims to overcome Albertville disappointment: Mike Rowbottom meets the speed skater with a golden chance to fight back from adversity

Click to follow
BENEATH corkscrews of black hair, Wilf O'Reilly's brown eyes are alive with intelligence and humour. But when conversation turns, inevitably, to the way he has prepared for the Olympics since the accident just before Christmas which left his girlfriend, Monique Velzeboer, paralysed, the eyes register only pain.

When Velzeboer, the Dutch No 1 speed skater, broke her neck crashing into a barrier during practice, O'Reilly was faced with the question of whether he wanted to carry on with his own speed-skating career.

His initial impulse was to finish with a sport in which he has not been out of the world's top five for the last 10 years. But he has reconsidered. 'It was very easy for me to say, 'forget it,',' he said. 'But that was an easy way out. Monique has been as supportive of me as you would expect.'

And so today, at the Hamar Olympic Hall, O'Reilly will attempt to win the gold medal in the 1,000 metres short track speed skating event - something which many people, not least O'Reilly himself, thought he would do at the last Games in Albertville.

An untimely shove which sent him spinning out of the semi-final two years ago ended any hopes he had of repeating his success at the Calgary Olympics, where he won both the 500 and 1,000m as demonstration events.

He quickly dismisses any sentimental notion of attempting to win gold for Monique. 'Because what happens in those situations is it doesn't happen,' he said. 'And then there is all this guilt.

'If someone gave me the choice, could Monique walk again or could I win an Olympic medal, I know which one I would want. It puts things into perspective. But Monique will be in Amsterdam Hospital for a while yet. And she will never walk again.'

O'Reilly's natural ebullience has been further tested by recent events. On Saturday a car crash killed two speed skaters, one of them a Dutch junior international whom both he and his girlfriend knew and who had sent messages of support.

'This is a very small sport,' Archie Marshall, O'Reilly's coach, said. 'And when things like this happen it hurts everybody in the sport.' O'Reilly, meanwhile, is pressing on with hope as well as expectation. 'It's not a question of blotting it out,' he said. 'You are concentrating on what you are doing. I will be standing at the start and I won't be thinking anything less about it. I wouldn't be here unless I felt there was the possibility of a medal.'

Aside from his mental state, the computerised testing to which O'Reilly regularly submits confirms that he is in prime physical shape. 'He has an incredibly low pulse rate,' Marshall said. 'We took it when he woke up the other day and it was 48.' O'Reilly, an apparently slight 5ft 7in, has also indulged in a little of the one-upmanship which he delights in. He amazed lifters in an Oslo gym when he did six repetitions squatting 200lb, chatting in his lively Birmingham accent and singing along to MC Hammer.

When asked how long it took him to get over Albertville, he paused for a moment, his large brown eyes searching the ceiling for an answer. 'Two days,' he responded. 'And a lot of beer.'

If O'Reilly has any regrets about Albertville, it is that he did not work harder to educate a British public which had been told to expect him to win gold that there was always the possibility of things going wrong.

He uses the analogy of the Grand National. 'If you have 50 starters, the statistical probability is that some horses will not finish. People in Britain understand that.'

The addition of the 500m to the programme gives O'Reilly a second chance on Saturday should misfortune strike again. He estimates there are around 20 contenders for medals, with the main rivals coming either from Korea or Canada.

'Wilf has good days and bad days,' Campbell said. 'On the bad days he is not down, but he is not focusing. And when you are not focussing, the sport becomes dangerous. A momentary lapse of concentration and you are in the boards.'

Given everything he has undergone, it would be cruel indeed were O'Reilly to suffer that once again. He is due a good, rather than a bad day.