Ireland's eyes smiling

TURIN, Italy -- While a country wonders whether speed skating icon Jeremy Wotherspoon can bounce back from his Salt Lake City Slipup tomorrow, teammate Mike Ireland wonders if he'll even be able to bounce out of bed.

After spending more than a year wondering if his career was over due to a concussion in September 2004, the 32-year-old Winnipegger is back for one final shot at the Olympic 500-metre title.

A former world sprint champion with a boatload of international medals to his credit, Ireland spent all of last season confined to his Calgary home battling headaches, nausea and dizziness that prevented him from riding a bike like the one he was on when he careened off a California mountain 17 months ago.

Although he has no recollection of the crash, Ireland knocked his head during the fall as he later asked his brother and coach, Sean Ireland, over and over how he got home.

Hospitalized briefly, Ireland began seeing an endless string of doctors and neurologists who essentially advised him to consider life without the sport.

"For sure, it was up there as one of the worst years of my life," said Ireland, a 12-year national team veteran who was unable to skate or train for 12 full months.

"I kept pretty positive until the summer and then got pretty negative. I had a pretty long career and was in my prime. Then

I just saw the Olympics and my whole career going away."

When endless headaches described as "the world's worst hangover" turned to neck problems, he started taking sleeping pills for relief.

This fall he defied his symptoms by forcing himself through the agony of workouts that sent his head reeling through the night.

"I was just going to give it another try no matter what," said Ireland, a fifth-place finisher in Salt Lake City.

"I figured I'd skate and deal with how

I feel. It didn't feel very good right away. Then a few days later, I started exercising and there were more symptoms. I'd take a few days off and have to start again.

"After a 20-minute bike ride, I'd have to take two days off, then three days."

Then came his first race in October and he has since used a few World Cup starts to "race himself back into shape."

Against all odds, Ireland's natural ability somehow saw him summon the strength to tie Wotherspoon at the Olympic trials in Calgary over Christmas, securing the unlikeliest of Turin tickets.

"Sometimes I get dizzy -- I'm not 100 percent yet," said Ireland, now battling a groin ailment and unsure how he'll feel every day he wakes up. "It's just a really slow process.

I still get the headaches when I'm training at odd times or when I'm overtired. My groin, hip flexors and back get tight because I missed the base work."

In other words, he's still a mess. Yet, despite it all, he'll line up with the world's best tomorrow for one last shot at glory.

"I think I can challenge," said Ireland, pausing when asked if he can shave two- 10ths of a second off his times to compete for a medal. "I've won pretty much everything there is to win except an Olympic medal but I'm going in with a slightly different mindset. I want to win but I don't have the recovery systems."

At this point, all he has is the will.

And a drive that knows no boundaries.

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Men's 500 speed skating: Tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.