Fighting for Oly dream

The barbed-wire marks on his legs are long gone. The memory of the crash off a mountain road in California never was.

But make no mistake: Winnipeg's Mike Ireland is going back to the Winter Olympics.

A 12-year veteran of the national speed skating scene, Ireland is one of five Winnipeggers named to the team that will represent Canada in Turin, Italy, next month.

His story, though, has to be the most inspiring of them all.

Ireland's mother, reached at her home here yesterday, might have put it best.

"It's kind of a miracle," Darla Ireland told the Sun. "Considering what he's gone through."

It was 16 months ago Ireland lost control of his bike during a steep descent on a mountain road, while training in Northern California.

To this day, he doesn't remember the crash. Those riding with him say a barbed-wire fence saved him from a worse fall.

Outwardly, Ireland has healed, but his head, believed to have grazed a tree, is another story.

"It shook my head up pretty bad," Ireland said from Calgary, home to the national team. "It's never been the same."

Those with him that first day, like his brother and coach, Sean, didn't like what they saw.

"It's pretty worrisome when a person doesn't remember where they are from one second to the next," Sean said. "Where you explain what happened, and you get the same question 30 seconds later."

The next 12 months Mike describes as "pretty nasty," starting with what felt like the worst hangover of his life -- one lasting nearly three weeks.

Months went by, and he still wasn't able to resume training without experiencing serious dizzy spells or headaches that lasted days.

"It kind of scared me," Ireland said. "So I just waited and waited and waited."

Last June, at the eight-month mark, he saw a leading neurosurgeon in Montreal, who told him he shouldn't be doing anything until he was symptom-free.

The news couldn't have been worse for somebody whose sights were set on the Winter Games in February.

Another two months off, and Ireland still couldn't skate on consecutive days.

So what does he do? Take a look at his achievements-- the World Cup wins, the records, the World Sprint Championship in 2001 -- hang up his skates and call it a career?

Hardly.

Instead, he laced up his blades and pointed them straight at Turin.

Starting slowly, "like someone who hasn't exercised in years," Ireland fought through the symptoms, reaching the end of September still nowhere near 100%. The Games were less than five months away. But the moment of truth was at hand.

"I just went for it," Ireland said. "I just said, 'Well, I have to hammer it. I have to go for it.' "

On Dec. 27, at the Olympic trials in Calgary, Ireland completed his unlikely comeback, tying Red Deer's Jeremy Wotherspoon for the fastest time in the 500-metre sprint and securing his ticket to Turin.

Yesterday, two days after his 32nd birthday, he tried to explain why. Why he pushed himself, fought through the dizziness and headaches, took sleeping pills to help him rest -- all for one, last Olympics.

"I felt that when I was on, I could win a race, that I was one of the top two or three guys in the world," Ireland said. "Having an accident at that point in time ... I always felt ripped off.

"I've achieved pretty much all the other big goals I had in the sport. The only one I haven't got, I haven't been an Olympic champion. Well, heck, I haven't won an Olympic medal.

"I had to come back and get to that level where I was at. And give myself a shot at the Olympics."

He's done that. He has his shot.

He's still up against it, figuring he needs to shave another two-tenths of a second off his time to have a realistic chance at gold.

But he's got five more weeks.

"It's not going to be easy," Ireland said.

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