June 19 - With only two years to go before London 2012, the British women’s volleyball team have received a severe blow to their Olympic prospects and will have to raise up to £500,000 to keep their dream of competing at a high level in the Games alive, it has emerged tonight.

Due to insufficient funds, their winter training programme - due to run from August 2010 to May 2011 - has been  compromised and only a limited competitive programme will take place next summer.

Facing the imminent fate of disbanding over winter rather than training or playing together as a unit, the 17 athletes will now have to try and find individual short-term contracts to play abroad -with most of the berths already taken by higher-profile foreign athletes- or identify a training regime in the UK.

One of the most senior players in the squad left the programme as a result of the announcement this week. 

In addition the whole staff team will similarly affected, offering minimal team support for the next eight to nine months.

"It is distressing news and a very serious situation," said  Audrey Cooper, the women’s coach.

"But we have decided to take our destiny into our own hands.

"We will try and raise the necessary funds ourselves.

"This journey started as an elite programme and we are determined it will end with elite performances in 2012. 

"We are prepared to do anything we can to keep the dream of being the best we can be alive.

"We can accept the situation and be mediocre, but we are not prepared to do that.

"The team are now recognised and taken seriously by other volleyball nations; this is now threatened and will diminish if they cannot compete regularly against the best nations in the world.

"We don’t want to say we competed at the Olympics for the t-shirt.

"We want to do ourselves and the country proud."

Having vastly improved their standard of play since the formation of the squad in 2007, they fear the reduction of opportunity to play as a group will seriously compromise their competitive chances in the world’s second-biggest team sport.

No British indoor volleyball team - neither men nor women - have qualified before to compete at any Olympics.

As host country, they qualify automatically.

This is their showcase and sole opportunity to establish the sport as a genuine and spectacular contribution to the success of London and beyond.

The focal point of the fund-raising will be a 320-mile bike ride by the British women’s volleyball team from their training base in Sheffield to the Earls Court Arena, the Olympic Volleyball venue, in London, led by Cooper (pictured).

The event will be launched  in Sheffield City Centre on July 23 and finish on July 27, exactly two years to the day before the Opening Ceremony of the 2012  Games.

On borrowed bicycles, the riders will complete distances of up to 100 miles a day, stopping along the way in Nottingham, Loughborough, Wolverhampton, Kidderminster, Oxford and Reading to raise awareness of their plight and galvanise potential support.

The immediate target for the team, which currently exists on its share of the £4.2 million over four year to British Volleyball from UK Sport, is to raise a minimum of £250,000 to ensure a high level of international competition next summer.

A further £250,000 in 2011 would allow them to achieve their ambition of playing as team in a European League next winter 2011-12.

The British team have already received official sanction for the innovative project from the European governing body.

"We know that this is the greatest opportunity of our lifetime to compete at an Olympics and to let it go now would be just devastating," said captain, Lynne Beattie.

"We’ve sacrificed so much already because we all want it so much.

"I moved down from Scotland to be here in Sheffield and other girls have given up careers, houses, boyfriends - everything, just so that we could be part of this team.

"We will fight tooth and nail to keep the dream alive. I sincerely believe we have the perseverance and resilience to come through this."

Lucy Wicks, a member of the team, said the sacrifice of the cycle ride would be worth it if it keeps the dream alive.

"I am seriously dreading the bike ride," she said.

"Personally I hate cycling and I have a feeling I am going to be right at the back of the peloton the whole way.

"But it comes to this. Whatever we have to do I will do.

"We’ve trained together, played together, won and lost together. 

"We will not give up the dream now."

British Volleyball is represented by David Welch Management. www.davidwelchmanagement.comMaria Bertelli (pictured), the former top footballer turned libero, admitted that London 2012 would be at the forefront of their minds on the ride.

"I’ve competed in the FA Cup final in my time as a women’s footballer,” said Bertelli, who played for Charlton Athletic against Arsenal in 2007.

"But for me the Olympics is the ultimate sporting event.

"As a sports person, it’s the opportunity to test yourself against the very best in the world.

"But when you think that these Olympics will be in our home country, it will be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"What a way to say ‘thank you’ to the friends and family that supported us and what a chance to encourage more and more kids to take up the sport."

British Volleyball is represented by davidwelchmanagement.com