By Padraic Flanagan
Standing on the Olympic podium in Beijing, cyclist Victoria Pendleton clutched the coveted gold medal as the crowds around her cheered and waved their Union Jack flags.
It was a stunning achievement for the golden girl of British cycling at the 2008 Games and it should have been a moment of personal – as well as national – celebration.
But the glamorous athlete now admits that she was left ‘almost numb’ that day after the squad reacted angrily to news of her relationship with coach Scott Gardner.
It is an unwritten rule in professional sport that coaches do not become involved with their athletes because of the risk it will undermine team spirit.
Although senior management had been aware of their romance, the couple were warned to keep it a secret until the end of the Games.
When they went public with their relationship, the immediate fallout was devastating.
Gardner, an Australian sports scientist, had to switch to the Team GB swimming team and Victoria spent years isolated from her fellow cyclists who, furious that Gardner was no longer there to help them, made plain their sense of betrayal.
In a television interview due to be broadcast this week, Bedfordshire-born Victoria, 31, who is tipped for further glory at London 2012, says: ‘Winning the gold medal should have been the happiest day of my entire life and it just wasn’t.
‘It felt like the saddest day in my entire life. I felt almost numb. I thought I really would feel different and somehow I would be overwhelmed by emotion, that I wouldn’t be able to hold it back, but I didn’t feel anything.
‘Everyone was so angry that Scott and I had fallen in love. It was so unprofessional – we were a disgrace and had betrayed everybody.
‘We knew if we embarked on this then that would be the end. One of us would have to leave the job.’
As the news leaked out, Victoria felt increasingly resented by her fellow athletes.
‘I can’t say I’m going to look back on the past three years fondly. I did feel at times that I was out on my own,’ she admits.
Betrayal: Miss Pendleton says the team were angry at her and felt 'betrayed' by her and fiance, sports-performance scientist Scott Gardner, for falling in love
Hinting that the air has still not yet cleared ahead of the London Games, she adds: ‘I’m not disregarded but I’m not the favourite, shall we say.’
The fact that British Cycling bosses have invited Gardner back to the squad could be either a blessing or a curse for the pair, who plan to marry after the Olympics.
Victoria is hugely reassured by his presence. She says: ‘He gave up everything to be with me and that means a lot.
‘That’s why I need to do him proud at the London Olympics, so I can say that it wasn’t in vain and to prove that it was all worth it.’
Victoria is now one of the country’s most decorated track cyclists. This will be her third Olympics and she has spent more than ten years at the top of her sport, winning nine world titles along with Olympic and Commonwealth gold medals.
She is also something of a household name and has used her enviable good looks to pose for men’s magazines. Such attention has attracted scorn from some areas, but Victoria is dismissive.
‘When I started there wasn’t any media attention on the team,’ she says. ‘Quite a lot of women in sport tend to take on an aggressive character. They want to be perceived as something strong and powerful.
‘I never lost that sense of being female and wanting to retain my femininity. I would never want to prove that I’m taking it seriously by making myself look different from the way I want to look. I wouldn’t be myself.
‘I’m going to win and I want to win with nice long hair. I’m going to straighten it and I’m going to curl it and it’s going to look lovely.’
She credits her father Max, a former national grass-track cycling champion, for her competitive streak. ‘I have been watching him race for as long as I was able, so it was inevitable that when I was old enough to race, that I would,’ she says.
Despite her impending marriage, Victoria’s thoughts remain fixed on going out in a blaze of glory in London.
‘The idea of running away with Scott and living happily ever after . . . that makes me happy. I still like the idea of happy endings like that,’ she says.
‘I want it to be the most amazing exit I can have from the sport. To say, “Thank you very much, I’m done now.” ’