Wendy Houvenaghel: ‘In 10 seconds the last six years went up in smoke’
Wendy Houvenaghel didn’t get to achieve her Olympic dream at the weekend when Team GB chiefs refused to select her to ride in the women’s Team Pursuit competition thus denying her a gold medal. She speaks to Steven Beacom
SB: So how are you feeling Wendy?
WH: Steven, I'm bearing up. What happened on Saturday was a shock. I wasn't expecting it and am just pulling myself together now.
SB: Can I take you back to Melbourne in the world championships when the same thing happened four months ago and you were left out of the team?
WH: Back in Melbourne when I didn't get used I thought straight away that this was not good but with the Olympic format being slightly different to the world championships I felt that it was worth continuing for the extra four months and giving it everything I had and trusting what the coaches had told me about being an important member of the team. And now they have let me down... again. I feel the decision they made was unjustified considering what I have been doing in training. We have gone faster in training in Newport a week ago with me in the line-up, so that world record that was broken on Saturday could have come down even more which grieves me.
SB: You feel badly treated then?
WH: I have been very loyal to British cycling over the last six years and I feel the way they have treated me has been very unjust.
SB: So what happened when you got to London from Newport? Did you think you would be riding at least one of the three rounds which would have entitled you to a medal?
WH: Absolutely. There was nothing to suggest in training that I wouldn't be used in at least one of the rounds, if not two.
SB: Is it true that your split times were quicker than the other girls?
WH: As a team we were going very quickly and there were a few efforts where my PB (personal best) was better than what they have posted at the Olympic Games, so there was nothing to suggest I wouldn't be riding. I was told in Newport that all four riders would be riding and Paul Manning, the women's endurance coach, confirmed this by saying there would be changes after the first round.
SB: Let's move to Friday's qualifying race, when where you told you would not be riding?
WH: Four or five days before the qualification it was confirmed the girls who won the world title would be riding in that round, so I was aware at that point that I wouldn't be in the qualification line-up. I just put my head down and worked towards the Saturday fully expecting to come in for either the semi-final or final. It just didn't materialise.
SB: So what happened on Saturday?
WH: At 12.30pm there was a meeting where we went over what happened the night before, looking at the graphs to see how everyone was performing. There was an obvious rider who could have been replaced for the next round, however, in a very brief outburst I was told that they were sticking with the same line-up and that I wouldn't be riding.
SB: Who told you that?
WH: Shane Sutton, the head coach of British cycling. I had to go away and accept that. A few hours later one of my team-mates was vomiting and was sick so clearly one of the team was compromised, so I thought I would be riding after all. With less than an hour to go the line-up had been put forward to the organisers and couldn't be changed so the same riders took to the start line for the semi-final, but that meant I had a chance to ride in the final. I warmed up and got ready for the final as I was told to do but then Shane Sutton again told me I wouldn't be riding. In that 10 second burst from him my Olympic dream was shattered and everything that I had worked for over the last six years just went up in smoke.
SB: Was it that abrupt in 10 seconds?
WH: It was that abrupt. There was no explanation and no reasoning. I had to accept it and then I left the building.
SB: I saw you leave the building on Saturday and you hugged Joanna Rowsell and waved to the other girls Dani King and Laura Trott. How do you feel about the other girls, your team-mates?
WH: Team-mates? That's a very interesting term to use. It depends how you define team-mates. It would appear the younger girls had their place on the Olympic team from the off no matter how they were performing. When I led them to win in the world championships in Apeldoorn (in Holland in 2011) I had effectively done my job and from that point onwards I was sidelined as it were even though I had just become a world champion for a third time. All the effort and attention and energy was channelled into those two (King and Trott) and there was nothing I could do about it.
SB: Why do you think British cycling chiefs made that decision?
WH: I'm not sure. Perhaps the ‘inspire a generation' thing could have something to do with it. I'm 37-years-old and have a career in dentistry as well as in cycling. Perhaps there is an element of ageism in all this. On Saturday there was no reason not to put me in one, if not both line-ups. I was more than capable. It was not an accurate reflection of my ability in team pursuiting and certainly wasn't a reflection of what was happening a week ago in our training camp. I'm in the best form of my life.
SB: What were you thinking as you left the building?
WH: I felt pure disappointment for my family and friends who have supported me on this journey and for all my fans in Northern Ireland who knew what I was capable of. I was there to get Northern Ireland a medal. It was devastating to think that one man had stood in the way of Northern Ireland getting its next Olympic gold medallist. I feel I have been robbed, my friends and family have been robbed, Northern Ireland has been robbed and I've been left to pick up the pieces with my friends and family. No one from British cycling has really bothered to find out how I'm getting on which is very disappointing.
SB: Has Sutton not come to see you since?
WH: Certainly not.
SB: What about the three girls?
WH: Nothing from them either. Not even a text to say ‘are you okay?’
SB: Didn't you stay with them in the same apartment in the athletes' village?
SB: So what happened on Saturday night? Did you go back there?
WH: No, I left with my husband and we went to a friend’s house. The next day I met my parents who had been at trackside on Saturday and today I packed my bags in the apartment, saw my team-mates and nobody spoke to me. That's professional sport for you I'm afraid. I'm aggrieved by the whole experience. It has just been horrific.