TURIN, Italy -- There was a time, not so long ago, Mike Ireland was one of the favourites in every 500-metre sprint he entered.
A medallist at numerous World Single Distances and World Sprint Championships, the Winnipegger was one of the big names on the World Cup circuit from 1998 to 2004.
Now 32, Ireland is virtually sneaking into Turin for his third Winter Games, a long shot to hit the podium thanks to a serious concussion that, by all rights, should have stopped him from even getting here.
Being a dark horse, it turns out, has its advantages.
"I would say I'm less nervous," Ireland said yesterday. "I kind of feel like an underdog."
At least he's in the race.
That year-long concussion -- Ireland went off a mountain road while training on a bicycle in California in the fall of 2004 -- prevented Ireland from skating right up until September.
Fighting off headaches and taking medication to help him sleep, the former River Heights Club skater worked his way on to Team Canada, grabbing a spot at the Olympic Trials right after Christmas.
"The clock was ticking down," Ireland said. "I kind of waited until the last minute."
He's still not quite right upstairs, and he hasn't regained all his stamina.
But the amazing improvement he's shown in just over four months has him thinking the unthinkable again.
"I want to win a medal. I don't think I'm that far off."
A medal from the Winter Games is pretty much the only bauble not part of Ireland's collection. It seems something always goes wrong, and in four-year intervals.
After making his Olympic debut as a 20-year-old way back in '94, Ireland's first big shot at glory was supposed to come in Nagano 1998, but a groin injury derailed that plan.
He made it to Salt Lake City 2002 but finished a disappointing seventh.
He immediately set his sights on Turin -- then rode off the side of a mountain.
"I want to have the best performance I'm capable of," Ireland said. "My fitness isn't what it was, but I'm just as powerful as I was."
And maybe more determined.
Not to mention coming out of nowhere.
Some people perform better that way.
Ireland has no choice.