Confident Cuddihy relishing the challenges ahead


LONDON BECKONS Team Ireland - Heading for Helsinki:IN THE four years since Joanne Cuddihy ran the 400m at the Beijing Olympics, there were several times when she questioned her commitment to her sport.

In 2007, after an exceptional junior career, Cuddihy became the first and only Irish woman to break the 51-second barrier, clocking a brilliant 50.73 at the World Championships Osaka. That she'd achieved this while studying medicine made it even more impressive.

So in preparation for Beijing, Cuddihy deferred her final year of study and trained full-time. Everything was going to plan until her bad fortune started.

"I got injured that March, initially," she says, "and it just snowballed. . . It started with a disc problem in my back, and I ended up doing rehab on that which flared up my knees. Then doing some trampoline work to help my knees, I tore my right calf."

Having qualified for Beijing - her first Olympics - Cuddihy then faced the hard call: "It was a big decision, whether to put myself on the line or not . . . part of me hoped I could pull it off. But at the same time it wasn't a surprise when the wheels fell off."

She trailed home sixth, clocking 53.32, effectively running on one leg - and then wondered whether to continue her career at all.

First she put her energies back into medicine, qualifying with honours - and spent the rest of 2009 plotting her next move. When her boyfriend and some pals talked about going to Australia she was tempted to join them.

She decided to try the Australian Institute of Sport, in Canberra - a long way from Kilkenny - linking up with athletics coach Tudor Bidder, while also working a junior doctor in Canberra Hospital.

Now, at 28, her hunger is greater than ever: "I've spent the last three winters in Australia, really enjoyed it. But if Australia hadn't gone as well as it did I don't know if I'd still be running now. I'm so glad I didn't end on that note in Beijing."

Last summer at the World Championships in Daegu, Cuddihy false-started in her semi-final, having run a season's best of 51.82 in her heat. She ran inside the A-standard for London with her 51.45 at the Shizuoka International meeting in Japan, on May 3rd, but feels next week's European Championships in Helsinki offers the perfect practice run for the Olympics.

"I haven't run a PB or anything this year, but I think that's in me this year. I don't think I've ever been in as good a shape before. . . We all know that this season is still all about London."

Sports focus - Judo

WITH LISA Kearney about to become the first Irish woman to compete in judo at the Olympics, it's worth considering her medal chances - because this is a sport where anything is possible, and every competitor goes in expecting the unexpected.

Developed from jujitsu, and established as a sport in the late 19th century by Dr Jigoro Kano, judo first appeared as a medal sport in Tokyo 1964, but it wasn't until Barcelona in 1992 that women were allowed compete too. The word judo means "gentle way" in Japanese and, although it appears to be anything but gentle, the aggression of the athletes is very much controlled. Contests are a five-minute whirlwind of combat, with scores awarded for different throws and holds. A contest ends immediately if a competitor is awarded the highly prized "ippon", scored by a clean, forceful throw by holding the opponent mainly on his or her back for 30 seconds or by submission to a strangle, a choke or a lock applied against the elbow. Not one of those events to try at home!

London's a-twitter

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Kenyan Olympics trials start in about six hours. Good luck.

The London Spectator - Road Cycling at Box Hill

Competition dates: Men - Saturday, July 28th; Women - Sunday, July 29th.

Coming just six days after the finish of the three-week Tour de France, the men's road race in London - a daunting 250km of it - promises to be one of the most exciting and spectator-friendly events of all, especially if British gold medal hope Mark Cavendish has his way.

However, the other 144 riders (except for most of his team mates) will be doing their best to drop him before the sprint finish on The Mall, and that's what makes the Box Hill section of the course so crucial.

After rolling out from the start at The Mall at 10am, the riders head southwest through London, crossing the River Thames at Putney Bridge, and out past Hampton Court Palace towards Surrey, where the race gets a lot more interesting.

The men's race incorporates nine challenging loops around Box Hill (two loops for the women's) before the riders head back north through Leatherhead, Richmond Park, and back to The Mall for a dramatic finish.

Box Hill is one of the steepest summits of the North Downs, around 30km south west of London. Famous for its sweeping panoramic views of the South of England, it has been popular with visitors since Victorian times, and for cycling fans is the best place to watch the men's road race.

It has been agreed that up to 15,000 spectators will be allowed access to Box Hill (up from an original 3,500) around the Zig Zag Road incline and Donkey Green area, although a ticket will be required. Temporary overlay and facilities will be installed to facilitate the management of these areas, but there will be no grandstands or seating.

A day trip would be well worthwhile, if only to experience the countryside. The fertile slopes support populations of bats, moths, butterflies, orchids and the hill's namesake, the box tree. Donkey Green, the flat area at the top of Zig Zag road, will also have a big screen broadcasting the entire race.

The rest of the route offers spectators approximately 120km of road to watch the race for free - although access to the finish line at The Mall will also be restricted.

The best way to get to Box Hill is by national rail: the Dorking or Dorking Deepdene stations are about a one-hour walk to the venue, mostly uphill; the Box Hill and Westhumble station is about a 30-minute walk.