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Saturday 18 November 2017

Mills keeping hope alive of taking up the Olympic baton

Joanna Mills is determined to one day compete at the Games -- even if she misses out on a ticket to London, writes Marie Crowe

The Olympics start in five days and still the saga surrounding the selection of the Irish women's relay team rages on. There have been appeals, meetings about appeals and counter appeals and as it stands no-one knows for sure who's going to be the sixth member of the team.

For Joanna Mills it's frustrating. Like most athletes, representing her country at the Olympics has always been a dream and, going on times, she has run fast enough to make that dream come true.

Despite having the sixth fastest time in Ireland, Mills 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 Catriona 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.

Although Mills started off as a cross-country runner, she soon found out she preferred the shorter distances. She dabbled in the long jump for a while before focussing on the 400m. Her mother, a former hockey player, and her father, a former rally driver, encouraged her to get involved in sport and brought her along to the Ballymena Athletics Club when she started secondary school. Although still only 19 Mills has competed internationally for eight years.

Her 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. I learned a lot about the girls while there. It's fine meeting them in the hotel and everyone is having crack but the day of competition everyone changes. It's good to see what they are like before a major championship performance and how they react. I can understand why it was important for me to be 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 Europeans thinking that I've come here and I've the sixth fastest time so that should be enough to make the team. And I didn't really mind it affecting my World Junior preparation because I thought I was still getting major championship experience and a shot at the Olympics."

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 on the Sunday night 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 thereasons 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. 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 Ian 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.

Although Mills was delighted with the result she had a major championship to compete in and that was her main focus. She put the appeal and the Olympics out of her head and headed to Spain.

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. 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, got back to training and tried to keep her mind off what was going on. But it was impossible to avoid everything. 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. 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."

Cuddihy's appeal was heard last Thursday night. The whole process took almost five hours and a decision is expected tomorrow. Whether Mills gets to the Olympics or not this time round is still unknown but no matter what happens she knows now how much she wants it and is determined to get there at some stage.

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