SHE has travelled from what was the centre of the earth just a short few months ago, but normality has long since broken out for star athlete, Joanne Cuddihy, writes John Knox.
These days her life is on a different track, her goal not precious metal, times or whatever, but rather the station that will be her place for the rest of her working life.
Joanne is back working in the field of medicine. The London Olympic Games dominated her summer, as it did the summer of sports fans the world over, but that adventure was always going to pass and tomorrow and all the tomorrows would involve her real career, and work.
“The plan was always that once London was over I would go straight back into medicine full time,” Joanne told the ’People when we revisited our Olympians for a round up of the sporting year 2012.
“I did that. I started work in September. I am lucky that I could go directly from one thing to something else. A lot of people can be left floating after an Olympics and get lost, or whatever.
Full time employment
“I was able to go into full time employment and not think too much about it.”
The Olympics, without doubt the ‘greatest show on earth’, took us all to London, wonderful London for wonderful ’Games this summer. Audiences the world over were captivated.
The Kilkenny City Harriers athlete, the Irish 400 metres outdoor record holder (50.73), was doubly employed there, in both her preferred 400m event, plus as a member of the Irish 4x400m ladies replay team that made history by qualifying for the Olympics for the first time.
Joanne took on the Olympic Games challenge for the second time, having raced in the 400m in Beijing four years earlier.
“I was glad to get a second chance at the Olympics,” she admitted. “Beijing was heartbreaking because I was in great shape the previous year. I was only one place off the final at the World Championships. Everything seemed to be going great, to be coming together.”
Then the dread of every top class athlete struck. She picked up a bad injury. She went to Beijing and ran. The injury blunted the edge. She wasn’t in good enough physical shape to be competitive.
The Olympic Games no friend of the injured athlete.
“That was very difficult to get over,” she said, without detail. “By the time London came around I had forgotten about Beijing. At no time in London did I think about Beijing.
“It was four years on. A lot of things had happened in between. I had moved to Australia for three years and had put a lot of work into my athletics career. That had more to do with it than trying to make up for Beijing because after a couple of years these things don’t seem as important as they did at the time.
Long journey, memorable year
“This was a memorable year after a long journey let’s say. Olympic year is always crazy. You know it is going to be crazy. Everything goes to a whole new level. There is a whole new dimension to the sport in Olympic year.
“I was delighted to have been a part of it, and to have earned the chance to get back to the Olympic finals. It was a sporting dream to make the Olympics, and I got to be part of it twice.”
Currently Joanne is a doctor work in psychiatry in Mayo general hospital in Castlebar. In January she will move to Sligo general and take on a different area of medicine as she journeys on with her studies towards the specialty that will be her place for life.
Roles have been reversed from the summer time. The emphasis has switched from athletics and the track, to the hospital and the career….work.
These times she does what she can to keep fit and in good shape, she explained. But a doctor working on call - at least once a week the duty roster will show her ‘call’ runs from 9 in the morning until 5 the next evening – hasn’t much time for training.
“I am doing what I can,” he said with some amusement. “It is not a priority at the moment. I am trying to decide what pathway to go down at the moment. I haven’t made any plans for athletics as yet.”
Athletics is on the back burner.
The Olympic experience, the second one, how did it go we asked?
“Grand...grand,” she said with an instant between the words. “Overall it was a great experience. It was great to be part of it. It was such a big occasion. There was a lot of stress with it as well, but I would say there were more positives than negatives.
“London turned out to be a special ’Games. The organisers did a brilliant job. I don’t think they could have done a better job. It was the perfect Olympic experience for all the athletes and fans, and because it was so close to home it was much easier for people here to feel more a part of it.
“Beijing was so far away; there was a time difference and so on, whereas with London everyone was so involved and enjoyed it. It was a brilliant ’Games they pulled off.”
Joanne took part in the glitzy opening and closing ceremonies. They would be memories for life, she insisted, the closing ceremony especially. The opening was nice, but with work (racing) ahead it wasn’t a carefree time.
“It isn’t really great for the athletes,” she felt. “You are nervous. I would give or take that. They did it brilliantly, but because you are only a week out from competition it is not easy to be comfortable.”
“Breathtaking” was the summary word used for the initial march of all the athletes behind the national flags; for the concert featuring Paul McCartney et al.
Surprise after surprise
“When we were finished it was fun and relaxed,” she said of the closing chapter. “It was surprise after surprise with the acts.”
With English being the spoken language in the Olympic Village that made life easier than it might be at some other championships. There were lots of volunteers, lots of willing helpers, people to offer support and assistance at every turn.
On the track Joanne finished fourth in her heat (52.09), and made it through to the semi-finals as the fastest loser. She admitted to being nervous, but that was nothing new. Even before a local race “I would be that way” she admitted.
“When the Olympics come round it is very different to every other championship,” Joanne explained when pressed. “It comes with Olympic fever. Everything can get a little crazy.
“There is an extra element to the sport that is only there at Olympic time. That kind of adds to the occasion a little bit. Because of the experience I have I would like to think I held myself together, and I was still able to go out and do the best I could.”
She had a good season in terms of the build up, during which consistency was her friend on the track. She went close to achieving the qualifying time several times. Eventually that threat turned into achievement at the Shizuoka international track and field meeting in Japan in May (51.45). Joanne headed to London on an ‘A’ ticket.
“It was nice to be back at that level, competing where I knew I could be,” the KCH runner said. “It would have been nice to put in a better performance, a once off or something, which is obviously the dream. I think I did the best I could do.”
She insisted that participation in the Olympic Games were wonderful memories to have.
“It was worth all the years of work and effort,” she assured. “An awful lot goes into it, not just for the Olympic Games, but throughout the season and your career.
“I would like to have medals and all sorts, but I am grateful. Every athlete has different up and downs. I qaulified for two Olympic Games. I realise there are other athletes who would have been good enough but unfortunately didn’t make.
“I appreciate that I got there.”
Work to win out?
What now after London you wonder? At 28 years of age and with a career path to follow, the likelihood was that work would win out over sport.
She chuckled at the hint of an attempt for a third Olympics and the words “pushing on a bit now” were used….by Joanne, let it be said.
“I wouldn’t think so, to be honest,” was the reply, delivered with a chickle. “I haven’t made any official decisions about the future.”
Athletics has dominated her life for years. She was never one for stats, and she couldn’t remember how many major championships she has contested. The Olympics was her 9th, if not the tenth major event.
“I got an awful lot out of the sport, definitely,” she assured. “It can be heartbreaking at times. It can be great at other times. That is the way sport is. I got to travel the world and to compete all over the place.
“I met terrific people. I got an awful lot form it. There were years when I felt I could have done a lot better, but injuries held me back. That can happen to anyone.
“Overall I was lucky to get where I got, and to get what I got out of the sport.”
Any time she committed to running, medicine was put on hold. Consequently, her medical career has been very much on a slow course compared to some of the people she went to college with.
“I did my best to keep both avenues open,” she added.
So, was London a highlight for the Irish 400m record holder?
“Everyone assumes being at an Olympics is a high, high,” she said when putting things in context. “The athletes do the same at London that we do every year at different places. It was only that everyone watched London. The audience is bigger. The whole thing was very exciting in that way.
“I enjoyed the sport just for sports sake. I think there are other times when I felt I ran better, had better performance and I enjoyed those in a different way. I guess London was so exciting it was great to be there, great to be a part of it.
“The games were the centre of world attention for a few weeks. That was the highlight that way. Sporting wise, I am not really sure. I haven’t really thought about it.”
Nice to be record holder
Being the national record holder, now that did mean something, something big!
“To be the Irish record holder is nice,” she said with pride. “There are not that many medals out there. A lot has to go right on any given day to win a race or a medal at a championship. It is good to have the record. I am very proud of it.”
Because the Olympic finals were so close and in our time zone, people appeared to tune in to the action like never before. Joanne Cuddihy felt the feel good factor from back home, and she appreciated greatly all the support she received.
“It was incredible the support I got from Kilkenny,” she said. “There was a genuine warm feeling about it. Having all that support and goodwill from everyone meant a lot, and I would like to thank people for it.”