Romero's switch pays off with gold
Being second best was never good enough for Rebecca Romero. The 28-year-old rowing silver medallist from four years ago walked away from her sport two years later, believing it could never help her realise her ambition of winning Olympic gold, and embarked on a daunting challenge to achieve her aims elsewhere.
Romero had never ridden a track bicycle before, but yesterday at the Laoshan velodrome the novice cyclist achieved her goal of a lifetime when she won the 3,000m individual pursuit title, beating her team-mate, Northern Ireland's Wendy Houvenaghel, on another day of extraordinary British performances.
Britons have won four of the five gold medals so far on the track and on current form will enjoy a similar return from the remaining five events over the next two days. Every member of the 14-strong British track team could return home with at least one medal. Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy appeared in total command in the early stages of their sprint competitions yesterday, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish will go into the madison as world champions, and the team pursuiters broke the world record in qualifying for today's gold medal race against Denmark. The only remaining discipline in which Britain might struggle is Romero's second event, the points race.
The timing of her triumph yesterday could hardly have been more poignant. Just minutes earlier, 40 miles away on Shunyi Rowing Lake, the British women's quad crew had had their hopes of gold dashed when beaten to the line by China. It was the same boat in which Romero felt so devastated to be a runner-up in Athens.
Dan Hunt, Romero's coach, told his rider the result just before her race. "I said: 'Come on then. Let's go one better.' She didn't really react. By that stage she was totally focused on the job. I could have told her that her hair was on fire and she would have just sat there."
Romero, the first British woman ever to win medals in two summer Olympic sports, admitted later: "I'm gutted for the crew, truly gutted. They deserved to win. It did spur me on a little bit, but at that point I was in the zone, only concerned about my own performance."
Only a week ago, however, Romero had feared that her Olympic ambitions were going up in smoke. Having become world champion for the first time five months ago, she subsequently had setbacks in training and produced her slowest time of the year in a practice run here. Worried that she was not going to peak in time, she recorded a slower qualifying time than Houvenaghel.
When Romero was a rower two years ago, Houvenaghel was a dentist. The former RAF squadron leader, who was a dental officer at RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall, became a full-time cyclist only at the age of 31 and has improved her personal best by more than five seconds over the last 12 months.
In the final, however, Romero looked in control from the moment she took the lead after 500m. At 1,000m she was 1.1 seconds ahead and at 2,000m 2.5 seconds. Houvenaghel rallied, but the winning margin was still more than two seconds.
Romero had been so wrapped up in her own ride that she crossed the line uncertain that she had won. "I was shouting to Shane Sutton [Britain's chief coach]: 'Was it me? Was it me?' When he said I'd won I still didn't believe it." The scoreboard above the track confirmed the result and Romero screamed in delight and circled the track to milk the applause of the scores of British fans. Those supporters have been having the time of their lives, even if the local public have not: for the third day running the velodrome was well below capacity.
Romero wept during the medal ceremony as the enormity of her achievement sank in. "To become Olympic champion puts you on a different level to everyone else," she said. "When you're one of the best athletes in your country you feel great. But when you come here you're mixing it with thousands of the best athletes in the world and you're nothing until you become Olympic champion."
Was she tempted by the idea of finding a third sport for the 2012 Games? "I couldn't put myself through that stress again. I'm happy with my lot. Besides, I was never good at any sports. I don't think I'm that good at riding a bike. It's just hard work and determination that has got me here. At least I'll be able to relax now. I didn't want to carry on for another four years fighting and fighting for that one step further. Now I'll just see what limits I can push myself to as a bike rider, to see if I can be like Bradley Wiggins or Chris Hoy. That would be the ultimate."
Romero said the toughest part of the weekend was racing against her team-mate and flatmate in the athletes' village. Hunt coaches both women and they had a prior arrangement that if they raced against each other here they would be assisted by other British coaches. Hunt usually stands at trackside during races, telling his riders as they pass whether they are on schedule or not. "Dan has been with me from the beginning and has got me through the toughest times," Romero said. "I definitely wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for him. The thing I was most gutted about was not being able to share the experience with him at the very last hurdle."
British ambitions are so high that Romero was concerned about her ability to perform well in today's points race, an event in which she has ridden on only one previous occasion. "I'm going to be in a position where all the other athletes have medalled," she said. "My motivation will be to make sure that I'm not the loser in the team."
Having quit rowing because she believed its training structure was geared to coaches rather than competitors, Romero said Britain's elite cycling programme should be a template for all sports. "We have a great model, a great system. There's good camaraderie in the squad and nobody wants to be a failure. We have the best of everything and that's why it works. I've been involved in two of the top sports and they're worlds apart. UK Sport should look at the success we're having and model it. If other sports don't learn from us we're not going to dominate at the London Games."
Hoy and Wiggins, who won the men's keirin and individual pursuit titles respectively on Saturday and are both seeking three golds here, were both back on the track yesterday. Hoy and Jason Kenny reached the quarter-finals of the sprint, both breaking the Olympic record along the way, and Pendleton did the same in the women's event.
The qualifying performance of the day, however, was by the men's team pursuiters, who broke their own world record. For the first time ever four teams went under four minutes in qualifying for the medal races, but Denmark, Australia and New Zealand all saw their times bettered by Ed Clancy, Paul Manning, Geraint Thomas and Wiggins, who completed the 4,000 metres in 3min 55.202sec.
Britain's wonder weekend – 8 gold, 4 silver, 5 bronze
Cycling: Women's ind pursuit: Rebecca Romero.
Rowing: Lightweight double sculls: Zac Purchase, Mark Hunter. Sailing: Finn: Ben Ainslie. Yngling: Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb, Pippa Wilson.
Cycling: Ind pursuit: Wendy Houvenaghel.
Rowing: Women's quad sculls: Annie Vernon, Debbie Flood, Frances Houghton, Katherine Grainger. Men's eights: Alex Partridge, Tom Stallard, Tom Lucy, Richard Egington, Josh West, Alastair Heathcote, Matt Langridge, Colin Smith, Acer Nethercott.
Gymnastics Louis Smith (pommel).
Swimming: 800m freestyle: Rebecca Adlington.
Cycling: Individual pursuit: Bradley Wiggins. Keirin: Chris Hoy.
Rowing: Men's four: Andy Hodge, Peter Reed, Steve Williams, Tom James.
Cycling: Keirin: Ross Edgar.
Cycling: Individual pursuit: Steven Burke. Points race: Chris Newton.
Rowing: Women's double sculls: Elise Laverick, Anna Bebington. Men's double sculls: Matthew Wells, Steve Rowbotham.