British Olympic athlete Rebecca Romero could easily have felt like she had missed the boat. Four years ago in Athens, Romero was part of her country's silver-medal-winning quadruple-sculls team. But a back injury after Athens meant she wasn't at the oars on Aug. 17, when four compatriots splashed to another second-place finish, this time on Shunyi lake, site of the Beijing Olympics rowing events. Fortunately Romero had a Plan B. She started racing bikes in 2006, and just minutes after the British crew took silver, Romero was across town inside the Laoshan Velodrome, riding to a remarkable victory in cycling's 3,000-m individual-pursuit event. Having ditched the boat for a bike, Romero became the first British woman to bag medals in two Olympic sports.
Only a handful of Olympians have ever reached the podium in different disciplines. (German Christa Luding-Rothenburger, for example, medaled in the 1988 Winter Olympics in speedskating and in bicycle-racing in the summer Games that same year.) But what made Romero's gold medal shine brighter was the speed of her midcareer switch to cycling. Most élite athletes train for at least eight years before they are ready to challenge for a place on the Olympic podium, says Andy Borrie, head of performance sport for the Sports Development Centre at Loughborough University in central England, a training ground for many of Britain's Olympians. Romero, 28, took less than two years. Her swift success represents "a huge amount of learning in a very short space of time," Borrie says.
The same might be said for Britain's overall Olympic effort. In Athens, the country's medal total was 30, which was fewer than nine other countries. But in Beijing, the empire has bounced back. By Aug. 20, the 12th day of the Games, British athletes had captured a total of 36 medals, including 16 golds the country's best haul in a century. Only China, with 45 gold medals, and the U.S., with 26, had done better in Beijing. This suddenly muscular showing augurs well: London will be the site of the 2012 summer Games, and the hosts-to-be want so much for their athletes to distinguish themselves at home that funding for competitive Olympic training programs already greatly improved over the last decade is set to increase further ahead of the event. According to Romero, it is Britain's world-beating cyclists winners of half of the country's Beijing golds who hold the key to success in 2012. "If other British sports don't learn from us," Romero said after taking gold, "we're not going to dominate at the London games."