The Olympics start in three days — but Joanna Mills’ London 2012 dream appears to have fallen at the very final hurdle.
The unseemly row over the selection of the Irish women's relay team has reached a new level after the Olympic Council of Ireland tribunal sided in southern athlete Catriona Cuddihy’s favour.
It was decreed that Athletics Ireland, who had handled Joanna’s appeal against her initial omission and subsequently reinstated her, had gone beyond the scope of their remit.
The counter appeal from the Ulster girl’s rival Cuddihy — who had been dropped to facilitate Mills’ reinstatement — was based on the validity of the original appeal and not the athletic merits of the girls themselves.
Mills’ coach Ian Neely has vowed to take the fight to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, so the distasteful saga may not yet be over even though the Olympics start in three days. Throughout this whole sorry process there have been appeals, meetings about appeals and counter appeals, but now we know the sixth member of the team — and it’s a huge personal blow to Mills who always argued she deserved a place in the 4 x 400m squad.
The news that Cuddihy had won her appeal was hardly surprising, given the fact that her name remained on the squad list on the Olympic Council of Ireland’s official website www.olympicsport.ie yesterday. For Mills it's another frustrating hammer blow. Like most athletes, representing her country at the Olympics had always been a dream and, going on times, she had run fast enough to make that dream come true. Despite having the sixth fastest time in Ireland, the Ulster girl wasn't the original choice to join Joanne Cuddihy, Marian Heffernan, Claire Bergin, Michelle Carey and Jessie Barr on the team.
The sixth spot initially went to Cuddihy but after an appeal Mills got the nod.
Mills has a season's best of 54.41 and a personal best of 53.89, which she ran last year when finishing fourth in Tallinn at the European Junior Championships, while Cuddihy's season's best (54.59), which she ran a few weeks ago, is also her personal best.
Mills’ possible inclusion in the relay team was first mooted last September when she was asked to go to Daegu for the World Championships as a reserve. And although she was interested in being part of the team, the timing clashed with her training plans so she couldn't take up the offer.
A few months later an expression of interest contract was issued for those who wanted to be part of the 4x400m relay team. One of the terms of the contract was that the athlete had to be available to go to training camps and also attend the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki.
As Mills had qualified for the World Junior Championships in Barcelona and they were scheduled to take place the week after Helsinki, she couldn't commit fully to the contract so she decided not to sign it. She tried to set up a meeting with Athletics Ireland but the meeting never happened.
So Mills kept training and competing with her own event in mind, but also the relay. A few weeks later she received a call from the performance director of Athletics Ireland, Kevin Ankrom, who was in Portugal on a training camp with the other potential members of the relay team.
“He was very supportive of the fact that I'd the World Juniors and couldn't go to the camp but he told me if I wanted to compete at the Olympics there were lots of forms I had to fill in, so I did all that and thought maybe I have a chance to go here,” says Mills.
However, she was also told that the relay wasn't just about who runs the fastest, that how the team gel would be also be a factor in the final selection, and that she should go to Helsinki.
“I totally understood where Kevin was coming from, telling me I need to go to the Europeans,” said Mills. “I learned a lot about the girls while there.”
The plan was that the original four who competed in Helsinki would run the heat, try to get a good time and then Catriona Cuddihy along with Mills would replace two of the girls in the final.
“I went to the Europeans thinking that I've come here and I've the sixth fastest time so that should be enough to make the team,” she added.
But things didn't go to plan. The relay team were disqualified in their heat so Cuddihy and Mills didn't get a chance to run.
Mills left Helsinki not having raced and with a bad feeling about making the team.
It was Tuesday before she got the call from Ankrom informing her that she wasn't selected and that the reasons would be put in an email.
“I wasn't too upset when I got the email first because I'd prepared myself for the bad news but as I read down through the mail I became really upset,” she added. “There was a category about having potential to improve and that disappointed me. Whether I was going to be a member of the team or not, it's not nice for people to think you don't have potential.”
Soon after she got the bad news, her coach Neely called her about making an appeal. Initially she didn't want to but after seeing the email the young athlete changed her mind. She was due to head to Barcelona in a few days so
she left the appeal in the hands of her coach and went on with her training. The morning Mills was leaving for the World Juniors she got a call from John Foley, CEO of Athletics Ireland, telling her that the appeal was successful.
However, while she was gone the news of her selection hit the headlines and the expectation was that Cuddihy would appeal.
“The night before my heat I got emails and calls from a solicitor about the counter appeal,” she said. “Ian took the phone off me and told them not to contact me, I was running the World Juniors. I ran an SB of 54.1 in my heat but I got more calls, texts and emails from solicitors. I didn't even know who they were from, I just let Ian take care of it.” Mills failed to make the final in Barcelona but doesn't blame the outside factors. She returned home but things were said by other athletes and that hurt her.
“I knew after the appeal that it was never going to be happy and fun,” she added. “I just think if it's me going then I'll learn from the experience, how to perform and prepare, rather than making friends with people. As much as I'd try to, there are other people who I'd think would have an understandable stand-off element. I don't think it's anything personal. I got on well with the girls in Barcelona; it's just the way it's panned out.”
Now events have panned out in the way Mills feared — her Olympic dream lies in tatters.