Having already claimed a cycling silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Wendy Houvenaghel has set her sights on winning gold in London next summer and completing one of sport’s most unlikely success stories in the process.
Normally when athletic achievements are gained on an international level, it is by someone who, from an early age, has seemed almost destined to achieve greatness in their chosen field.
Houvenaghel, however, who initially took up cycling as a hobby with her husband, is the first to admit that her road to success was considerably less clear as a child growing up in Upperlands, Co. Londonderry.
She decided to study dentistry at the University of Dundee and after graduation took up a post with the RAF in 1998. Upon completing her service Houvenaghel continued as a dentist, only shooting to cycling prominence in 2003 after becoming the National Time Trial Circuit champion.
She concedes: “I only started cycling around the age of 28 or 29 and at no point then did I think about going to one Olympic Games, never mind two.
“I feel privileged to have been in that position and to have gained these experiences, but now my focus is fully on fulfilling my ambitions next year in London.”
Placed by the British Cycling Federation onto the Olympic Podium Plan in 2006, the Upperlands cyclist became Northern Ireland’s first Olympic medallist since 1992 when she finished just two seconds behind fellow team-mate Rebecca Romero in Beijing.
“I was very happy in 2008 because I achieved what we set out to do, which was a podium place within two years, but this time we’ll be aiming for gold.
“I think maybe the experience of competing on a stage of that size was what I was lacking in Beijing, so for London the fact that I know exactly what is coming means I feel more prepared for the task at hand.”
And previous Olympic experience is far from the only cause for optimism after what has been another terrific season for the 36-year-old.
Houvenaghel was victorious once again at the National Time Trial Championships, while also securing Team Pursuit titles at both the European and World Championships.
She affirmed: “I think you can take a lot of confidence in cycling when things are going well. If you’re doing okay then you like to think it’s repeatable and that hopefully the success will continue.”
Houvenaghel spent the weekend in Northern Ireland, the brief sojourn home preceding what is set to be a gruelling 10-month period of preparation for the biggest race of her career.
“The next few months are going to be really, really busy and back in Manchester there’s a lot of hard work to be done.
“We’ll be doing a lot of track work and then really be looking to excel in the competitions coming up and use them to gauge where we are,” added Wendy.
Her Beijing medal came in the Individual Pursuit, a discipline that has been replaced by the Team Pursuit for London 2012. The different challenge, however, is one that she is enjoying.
“Spending time in a team environment having been used to the individual one is actually a pleasant change.
“Obviously, it’s different I suppose in the sense that the focus isn’t just on you being fit and healthy but on the other team members and reserves as well, but we’re more than used to it now.”
When Houvenaghel speaks the overwhelming impression is one of an athlete with unwavering focus and clearly defined goals.
She reveals: “It was going so close the last time round that inspired me to go again for four more years and have the motivation to go one better this time.
“To get that gold is what we’re aiming for and I just really hope we can achieve that.”
If she and her fellow Team GB riders were to succeed in London next year, it is hard to imagine there could be a more popular victory in Northern Ireland.
During a week where Carlos Tevez’ refusal to play as a substitute for Manchester City despite his reported weekly wage of £250,000 has dominated the sports pages, the modest and understated Houvenaghel provides a pleasant reminder that all sporting stars should not be tarred with the same brush.
Attending an event to launch a new cycling store in Belfast, the Olympic medallist displayed an attitude that seems incongruous with her standing. Perfectly content to pose for every photo, shake every hand and grant every request asked of her, the refreshing attitude has ensured she is a hugely popular figure in her homeland.
The next time she returns to the country, there’s every possibility it will be with an Olympic gold medal.
Wendy Houvenaghel was speaking at the launch of the new retail store for Chain Reaction Cycles at Boucher Road, Belfast.
Name: Wendy Houvenaghel
Born: Upperlands, Co. Londonderry
Team: Bike Chain Ricci/ Sky
Disciplines: Team pursuit/individual pursuit/time trial
Major victories: Olympic Silver Medal Individual Pursuit (2008); Commonwealth Games Silver Medal Individual Pursuit (2010); World Championship Gold Medal Team Pursuit (2008, 2009, 2011); World Championship Silver Medal Team Pursuit (2010); World Championship Silver Medal individual Pursuit (2009, 2010); National 3 km Pursuit Champion (2005, 2006, 2010); UCI World Cup 3 km Individual Pursuit Champion (2005/6, 2006/7, 2009/10); National Time Trial Circuit Champion (2003, 2007, 2011); European Champion Team Pursuit (2010/11); UCI World Track Champion, Team Pursuit (2008, 2009, 2011).