Is the news this week that Rebecca Romero will not compete on a bike at London 2012 the latest installment in the career of an athlete continually reinventing herself, or the final chapter in the story of someone who never quite seemed to find her niche?
In a short press release on Monday, Romero confirmed news that had widely been expected: that she was pulling out of British Cycling’s Olympic programme.
Romero’s story has been well-told – Olympic rowing silver medallist in 2004 and world champion in ’05 she switched to cycling having injured her back and dissatisfied at the way rowing was being run.
Her move to cycling in 2006 set a template for programmes that have been promoted heavily during the build-up to London 2012. Talent identification spots elite physiological potential and fast-tracks athletes, teaching them sports in which they can excel, bypassing established club systems.
Already a public face in 2008 because of her appearance naked on billboards advertising an energy drink, Romero confirmed her celebrity by dominating track cycling’s individual pursuit in Beijing to take gold, and to overcome some of the demons that had apparently haunted her after coming up a medal short four years earlier.
Olympic champion Chris Boardman said of meeting Romero for the first time: “It was her absolute need to win a gold medal and her commitment to the process that stood out
“There was something that came from inside her. It’s the difference between wanting success and needing it. Rebecca needs it.
The individual pursuit is a simple event: a race between you and the clock with the opponent on the other side of the track, a shadow to compare yourself against. The politics surrounding the event were far less easy, though, as it was axed from the Olympic programme in 2009, leaving Romero without a title to defend.
Romero’s approach seems to always have been all-or-nothing and as she struggled to find a new metier the results moved towards the latter.
She took a year off then had injury problems, while the world moved on. The team pursuit was her only option on the track but were at least six candidates for three places, with a young line-up winning the world title last year.
She talked about competing in the road time trial – a move that male Olympic IP champion Bradley Wiggins has made successfully – but she never raced on the road as part of the women’s professional circuit, perhaps struggling to adapt to the nuances of a sport that most learn in their teens but she only began to take seriously aged 26.
That is arguably the problem with talent ID – the equivalent of cramming for an exam in a few weeks without reading around the subject over several years.
But on the other hand British cyclists – most prominently Boardman himself – have a history of being great at time trialling but less certain at racing in a peloton.
So what happens now for Romero? She professes not to know, saying on Twitter: “Will fill you all in as things unfold …”
There have been suggestions the 32-year-old could target the 2014 Winter Olympics, and she addressed them in a subsequent tweet, saying: “This bobsleigh word is being branded about a lot! Points2note: 1) I’m bog slow to get moving 2) I get sick on fair-ground rides.”
Great Britain Bobsleigh performance director Gary Anderson seized his opportunity, replying: “Note: 1 – we can train that – 2 – the crash helmet will contain that … so no problems.”
Anderson used the same method successfully to steer Commonwealth 100m silver medallist Katherine Endacott towards bobsleigh but, while the sprinter’s explosive strength makes her an ideal talent transfer, Romero’s strength may lie elsewhere.
The endurance demands of rowing and pursuit cycling are better replicated in cross-country skiing and speed skating.
Perhaps that is where the future lies, if Romero’s need for gold remains.