Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Joanna Mills: This has left a sour taste, but I’ll keep on running

Ballymena runner Joanna Mills speaks to the media at Antrim Forum

Joanna Mills is 19. She's an intelligent, articulate, attractive girl with that wonderful ability to race round an athletics track at speed.

Today should have been one of the happiest days of her young life, jetting off with her team-mates, full of hope and wide-eyed excitement at the prospect of competing in the Olympics.

The gifted Ballymena & Antrim Athletics Club member was not on the plane from Dublin to London with other Irish athletes however — her Olympic dream having turned into a nightmare due to a shambolic tale that has left bigwigs at the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) and Athletics Ireland looking like chumps.

Effectively those two bodies have played hokey cokey with Joanna's 4x400m relay London 2012 ambitions. She's been in, out, in, out of the Olympics so much it's amazing that she's managing to think straight.

In a nutshell, after appeals and counter appeals Mills did not travel with the Irish squad today to rub shoulders with the likes of Usain Bolt, Ryan Giggs and Jessica Ennis in the Olympic Village. Catriona Cuddihy got to go instead.

And this even though Joanna is a quicker runner than her southern counterpart both in terms of personal bests and season's bests.

The 4x400m Irish relay team aren't going to win gold. If they reach the final it will be a miracle, but surely they have to give themselves every chance which would have been enhanced with Joanna on board.

It's a story that has generated much interest on both sides of the border. Before all this Joanna was only really known in athletics circles, as a gifted 400m runner with a bright future ahead of her.

Now Mills is known all over the country, even by people with no interest in sport whatsoever, as the Ulster girl who should have been picked, but wasn't.

On Tuesday Mills faced the media at the Antrim Forum where she trains with coach Ian Neely.

A group of schoolkids looked on as Joanna read out a statement in front of the TV cameras outlining her disappointment at the OCI's decision, insisting that “performance seems to have been lost in this process”.

What has not been lost is the dental student's dignity in handling a difficult situation. She may still be in her teens but there is a maturity beyond her 19 years.

Coach Neely, a rock to the young athlete throughout the lamentable process, says the “emotional stress of it all” has affected Joanna more than she has let on.

Joanna told me that she hoped the decision makers would learn from what has been a public relations mess for athletics on this island.

Asked if after the way she has been treated by Ireland, she would declare for Team GB in the future she was wisely non-committal, but did say: “Competing from an early age I've seen a lot of what goes on and people would admit there is a lot of politics in Irish athletics. I want to be involved in it for sport and sport is supposed to be fair.”

Intriguingly on the same question, her coach answered: “Ireland have been good to her in terms of previous European Junior and World Junior championships and you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater but this process has left a sour taste in her mouth and that will be a decision we would have to look at.”

Unlike many others Joanna, who is confident she can progress from this, doesn't necessarily feel there has been a north v south agenda behind the selection process that left her thinking about taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport yesterday.

I say to her instead of going through court and committee rooms, wouldn't it have been better to have settled this on the track with a race off against Cuddihy?

She replied: “I wouldn't have minded that. I guess it would have been a way to settle it. The not knowing aspect for both myself and Catriona has been hard. It's athletics, it shouldn't be about legal arguments.

“I have learnt a lot and I believe everything happens for a reason. I know God has a plan and if it is meant to be then hopefully I'll compete at an Olympics some day.”

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