/**span.light-highlight**/Joseph Millar’s decade-long quest to be an Olympian./*/*
/**span.light-highlight**/Joseph Millar’s decade-long quest to be an Olympian./*/*
One-thousand-three-hundred-and-eighty-seven people have competed at an Olympic Games for New Zealand. Thousands more have not quite made it.
In the final countdown to the Tokyo Olympics, Stuff presents a five-part story on one athlete’s desperation to be on the right side of that ledger.
National Correspondent Dana Johannsen tracked the journey of sprinter Joseph Millar for two years of his life on the edge of the Olympics.
Joseph Millar is a five-time double national champion in the 100m and 200m events. He’s been to the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He’s never been to the Olympics - and this might be his last chance.
This is Millar’s PRE-RACE, part one of a five part story about his two years on the edge of the Olympics.
Joseph Millar’s intensity scares even himself at times.
For Millar, one of the mainstays of the New Zealand track scene for the past decade, making the Olympic Games is not a dream. It is more elemental than that.
I don’t want to be an Olympian, I need to be an Olympian.
He is driven by an inextinguishable desire. He is driven by all that has come before - both his past failures and his successes. He is driven by the endless pursuit of running faster than he ever has before.
And sometimes, he concedes, he is driven by fear.
“Looking ahead to the next year, it’s exciting, but it is also very scary. It’s this really intense feeling of needing something so badly,” Millar told Stuff back in 2019 as he contemplated his third tilt at qualifying for the Olympics.
“It’s scary because there is always a chance that it might not happen. As we get closer and closer [to the Olympics], the fear gets greater and greater.
Fear isn’t the healthiest of emotions, it can be destructive, but it can also be an amazing motivator - fight or flight, that sort of stuff.
That one-year qualification window would become two years as the Covid-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Olympic Games to July this year. What wouldn’t change in that period was Millar’s propensity for disarmingly honest self-reflection.
Millar is what you would call a deep thinker. He gives long, considered answers to even the most routine of questions, starting slow at first, tip-toeing from word to word. Then, when he is sure of his footing, elaborating at length before arriving back, more confidently this time, at his original point with a neatly wrapped summation. It is as if he is using the time to explore his own thinking.
He will boldly articulate what few other athletes will say. He is both supremely self-confident, yet also self aware. He will volunteer his own shortcomings, own up to past mistakes and examine his own flaws.
Millar is one of around 1000 Kiwi athletes on the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s longlist for Tokyo. NZOC secretary general Kereyn Smith estimates the final team will be at around 200, meaning more than 80 per cent of Olympic hopefuls will miss the cut.
The Tokyo Games are, in all likelihood, the 28-year-old’s last roll of the dice to make the New Zealand Olympic team.
It is a goal he has chased since 2012 when, in a blur of pale limbs, a teenaged Millar flew on the sprinting scene, picking up the 100m and 200m double at the national championships that year.
His ascent to the throne of New Zealand’s fastest man had occurred quickly and unexpectedly. Suddenly the Olympics were on his radar, although he admits it was a “very, very long shot back then”.
Come his campaign for Rio in 2016, it felt like Millar’s time had arrived. He threw everything at his bid.
After failing to meet the ‘A’ qualifying standard over the New Zealand and Australian track and field season, Millar obtained private sponsorship to base himself in the Lee Valley in north east London, training against some of the top British sprinters, and, on the weekends, hopping from event to event around Europe to try and secure the elusive time.
As the qualification window narrowed with each passing event, his efforts became increasingly more frantic. It came down to one final track and field meet in Switzerland. In a series of mishaps reminiscent of a scene from The Amazing Race, Millar learned his flight had been cancelled while in the back of the cab on the way to Heathrow Airport. He hastily arranged new flights on the cab ride, requiring the driver to divert to Gatwick, before realising his flight would arrive too late to catch the final train to the Swiss town. He was facing the prospect of sleeping at the train station and arriving just in time for his event.
Millar decided to pull the pin and return home.
“It was tough. I really believed that I could do it. I have more knowledge now, and I now realise I probably wasn’t as close as I thought I was,” says Millar.
“Sure on a good day with perfect conditions I might have been able to get there, but knowing what I know now, I believe I am much better set up to do the time and go further than I was back then.”
Since 2016, Millar has notched up some significant milestones.
He’s become a five-time double national champion in the 100m and 200m events, broken Chris Donaldson’s long-standing New Zealand record in the 200m, and claimed the New Zealand residents’ record of 10.18 in the 100m - although he sits fourth in the all-time list behind Gus Nketia (10.11, in Canada), Nketia’s son Eddie Osei-Nketia (10.12, Australia), and Donaldson (10.17, Malaysia).
Millar has also represented New Zealand at two major “black singlet” events - the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The Olympics is the last box to check in his athletics career. That’s where the fear comes in.
To leave the sport without the complete set of Commonwealth Games, World Champs and the Olympics, it isn’t something I’m willing to do.
In part two - THE START - published on Tuesday, Millar plots his plan to run faster than he ever has before.
To make it to the Tokyo Olympics, sprinter Joseph Millar knew he had to run faster than he ever had before - or navigate a complicated points system and the judgement of selectors.
This is THE START of Millar’s race - part two of a five part story about his two years on the edge of the Olympics.
For pretty much as long as Joseph Millar can remember, he’s had one goal: to go fast.
His obsession was sown by an off-hand comment from his father, David. A young Millar was worried about being bullied by some of the bigger kids at school. “Well,” David said, “you’d better make sure you’re faster than them then.”
It was advice an impressionable young Millar took literally. The idea planted itself in his brain, and he became fixated on needing to be quicker than everyone else.
“I was also pumped up by my childhood heroes on TV. They were all fictional, like superheroes and stuff like that. It almost came from a want of just wanting to have superpowers and speed was one of those things that I would try to harness,” Millar says.
After a while, his mother Bernadette began taking Millar, the oldest of her six children - three boys, three girls - down to club nights at the Papamoa Athletics Club. He was immediately hooked.
“To be that person that is the fastest in the class, and then the fastest in the school was something that motivated me.
There was always someone faster. So I would find someone to lock down on and try to get faster than them, then I would find someone else. I kept picking people until I ran out of people to chase down.
That methodical approach that revealed itself in Millar as a youngster is still evident today.
Inside Millar’s “war room” at Tauranga’s Queen Elizabeth Youth Centre, two large year planners stretch out along the back wall. Next to the date July 24, 2020 Millar has roughly drawn the Olympic rings. Everything else works back from this point.
The next 12 months of Millar’s life are meticulously plotted out in colour coded stickers.
Each colour represents a different stage of training and competition. The Blue and green stickers chart the off-season work, with blue focused on improving quality and green improving quantity. Red represents the competition phase of Millar’s season, in which emphasis is placed on refining the competitive elements. Yellow is the taper phase in the lead-up to a major event, where the training load is reduced to optimise performance.
Then there is black. Black means rest - both planned, and unplanned.
Among the rainbow of stickers are the key track and field meets Millar is targeting in his qualifying bid.
There are two ways for Millar to qualify for the Tokyo Games. There’s the straightforward route of meeting the automatic standard, which has been set at 10.05 seconds in the 100m and 20.24 in the 200m, meaning, with career best performances of 10.18 and 20.37 respectively, Millar will have to run faster than he ever has before.
The other way for an athlete to qualify is by virtue of their world ranking, based on their five best performances during the qualifying period. Under the new criteria introduced by World Athletics in 2019, an athlete’s ranking is not just decided by times, it is an accumulation of points based on how fast you ran, the level of competition and final placing.
“It’s like a decathlon score, they give you a points value for your actual result and then they add on bonus points based on the category of the meet,” explains Scott Goodman, Athletic NZ’s good natured high performance director.
For example, a category C or D meet would give you 60 bonus points for a win, while a win at the nationals would reap 100 bonus points. The Oceania Championships were a step up again, with 170 additional points awarded to winners.
If it seems overly complex, that’s because it is.
“It’s fair to say it took me a bit of time to get my head around it,” shrugs Goodman.
Why [World Athletics] decided to bring this in in an Olympic year bemuses me, but that is out of our control.
Goodman says, either way, Millar is up against it.
The veteran is facing increased competition at home from impressive youngster Eddie Osei-Nketia, who in mid-2019 had just announced his allegiance to New Zealand following a trans-Tasman tussle for his talents.
There’s an additional Olympic hoop all New Zealand athletes must jump through to make the team. Selection for Tokyo is ultimately determined by the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which has an additional criteria that athletes must demonstrate an ability to finish inside the top 16.
“Given there are already about 30-odd automatic qualifiers in the 100m, it’s a really challenging argument to make,” he says.
In a sport where competitors are chasing improvements by the hundredths of seconds, breaking any new ground is hard fought. It is not so much a time Millar is chasing, but a feeling of transcendence that sprinters experience when everything clicks. The moment when the noise stops and the fear goes away.
“When you get into full flight, it’s not something you experience every single time, but when it all comes together and everything is in sync, it’s like listening to a motor start screaming into that high pitch until there is no sound at all.
“You don’t feel the ground underneath your feet, it’s almost like you’re flying and you’re not present in the moment, like you’re experiencing it, but it’s not you. It’s just the most incredible feeling of sheer power.
I visualise that moment. I think that’s what it’ll feel like qualifying [for the Olympics], I’ll know it, without even looking at my time.
In part three - THE BEND - published on Wednesday, Millar runs into a series of challenges before getting one big reprieve.
Aspiring Olympians like sprinter Joseph Millar don’t just turn up and run fast. Millar has the sorts of problems that might confront any young Kiwi: A dodgy flat, a broken arm, and the cruel diagnosis of terminal illness for someone very close to him. And then there was Covid-19.
This is THE BEND in Millar’s race, part three of a five part story about his two years on the edge of the Olympics.
There are outside forces working against Joseph Millar from the beginning.
Throughout his career, he has battled the laws of sporting economics. High Performance Sport NZ’s targeted funding model dictates that the pool of funding allocated to elite athletes each year is directed to those that demonstrate podium potential.
Millar has received some government support over the years. He was a carded athlete up until a couple of seasons ago, receiving access to the High Performance Sport NZ gym and support services, like nutrition, physio, and sports science, but his carding was removed by mutual agreement as he tended to use his own “people”.
For Tokyo, Millar is going it alone, funding and managing his own campaign.
He has a couple of personal sponsors helping him in his bid. He gets gear from Adidas, most of his medical costs are covered, while a local car dealer has provided Millar with a car and fuel.
It is more about eliminating costs rather than getting money out of them. Most of my training expenses are covered. All I need to do is feed myself.
It still leaves a shortfall of travel costs and entry fees. He is doing some coaching in Tauranga at junior level, helping young kids “go fast”. Athletics NZ have been supportive, he says, chipping in a small amount of funding for Millar to attend training camps and get across to a couple of events in Australia with Eddie Osei-Nketia. But it is an endless grind
When he was younger, he considered being a fulltime athlete travelling the world to be living the dream. Now he is older and his friends are beginning to buy houses and get married and think about starting a family, the lifestyle has started to wear him down. It’s not that he’s worried about being left behind, he says, but the longer he sticks at it, the sacrifices he is making for his sport become more apparent.
“It’s that sort of crap you have to deal with behind the scenes that does take its toll,” he says.
Millar has always had an independent streak. With a background in sports science, he is an enthusiastic student of the sport and its biomechanics, undertaking his own research. To him, training opportunities overseas are also an opportunity to study and learn from other athletes. When he can’t get overseas, he’ll spend hours on Youtube analysing the techniques of the top sprinters in the world.
Former sprinter Gary Henley-Smith, who coaches Eddie Osei-Nketia, says Millar’s commitment to understanding his craft is unlike anything he’s seen from other athletes.
“He has an unbelievable understanding of his particular event,” says Henley-Smith, who has gotten to know Millar during training camps.
“We can probably learn a lot from what Joseph does. He does some pretty cool things in his training, which is probably not done in other people’s training around New Zealand.”
Millar’s insistence on doing things his own way has led to battles with the national body over the years. To some, Millar’s rejection of the system is viewed as arrogance. Others say why should he conform to a system that doesn’t suit him?
In more recent years, Millar says they have come to a better understanding.
I definitely have a better relationship with [Athletics NZ] now.
“I think as they’ve gotten to know me better, they have sort of worked out where I am at. I probably have a reputation as being difficult because I stick up for myself. I tend to be quite direct and to the point. If I see an issue I will speak up. But it’s more in a way that I will ask questions and challenge their thinking. Not so much to shut them down, but I like to understand where they are coming from.”
Millar didn’t always plan to coach himself for this campaign. In 2019 he moved down to Christchurch to work with Andrew Maclennan, adding to a list of coaches that includes Todd Blythe, Kerry Hill and Paul Gamble.
He found himself the “world’s worst flat”, developed a chronic skin irritation that meant he could not sleep, and then broke his arm. Millar decided Christchurch was not where he was supposed to be.
He returned to Tauranga a few months later, just in time to be back with family when they learned his mother Bernadette had been diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. For a man not interested in odds, the word “terminal” was harder to negotiate.
“It’s been really tough, it’s hard to care much about training when you see your mum going through something like that,” he says.
There were more disruptions to come, but none seemed that significant in the wider scheme of things. His summer season ultimately came to an end when he suffered a back injury during a misguided exhibition event in Mission Bay.
Come March 2020, Millar was facing the prospect of having to go overseas and try to get the job done. Athletics NZ were willing to grant him an exemption to prove himself, but he would have to hustle to find some money to get overseas and compete.
Then, on March 25, the day before New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown, the International Olympic Committee announced the Tokyo Games would be postponed to 2021.
Covid-19 had given Millar a do-over year.
In part four - THE STRAIGHT - published on Thursday, Millar finds his stride.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year gave sprinter Joseph Millar a fresh shot at finally becoming an Olympian. And pairing up with a teenaged speed demon pushed him to places he hadn’t been before.
This is THE STRAIGHT in Millar’s race, part four of a five part story about his two years on the edge of the Olympics.
After the inertia, after the uncertainty, and after the ambiguity, came clarity. A renewed sense of purpose. Things began to move how Joseph Millar prefers it - at pace.
Millar knew he needed a change. Looking back over the previous 12 months, he felt his most productive period was the time he’d spent in Wellington training with the rapidly emerging young sprinter Eddie Osei-Nketia. So, he called up Osei-Nketia’s coach, Gary Henley-Smith, and asked if he could muscle in on the double-barrelled unit.
Henley-Smith, a senior leader at Scots College, where Osei-Nketia was in his final year, found Millar a role working at the school as a boarding supervisor. It meant Millar had an income, his food and accommodation was taken care of, and he could concentrate on his training.
His mum’s illness has given him a new perspective. That fear he felt about last chances and time running out - it isn’t there any more.
For me knowing that this is probably my last chance helps stoke the fire more than anything.
“My mother gets out of bed every morning and gets stuff done because she knows she doesn’t have any days to waste, and I guess I feel something similar. I don’t have an endless amount of time to get this done, so I want to make sure I am doing everything I can to get there.”
The arrangement with Henley-Smith is that Millar will still manage his own programme, with the veteran coach acting in more of a mentoring role. Millar and Osei-Nketia are very different sprinters, both in size and strength and technique, so they need different approaches to training. But for the speed sessions, they partner up.
Those sessions awaken the competitiveness in both athletes.
“I think a lot of people think that as Eddie is a rival that any interaction I have with him might be trying to get an advantage on him, but I’m not like that. How I look at it is, if he is faster, then I will have to get faster too,” says Millar.
“Pushed or pulled, you cross the line faster.”
Millar and teenaged sprint star Eddie Osei-Nketia lunge for the line in the final of the 100m at the Capital Classic in 2019. HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES
Millar and teenaged sprint star Eddie Osei-Nketia lunge for the line in the final of the 100m at the Capital Classic in 2019. HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES
In Wellington, Millar began to see what might lie beyond athletics.
Along with being a boarding supervisor, he also helped out with the Scots College first teams as a strength and conditioning coach.
“Joseph is very much suited to that mentoring type role,” says Henley-Smith. “He is very personable, but straightforward at the same time. I think he could be a very good teacher actually, so I am hoping in the long-term that he might go that way.”
Henley-Smith, a former sprinter, who represented New Zealand at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and professional rugby league player knows the struggle of putting your career on hold to chase sporting ambitions.
“I know what it's like to be in that situation, you have to make a decision whether or not you are going to develop your career and actually start earning money,” he says.
“That’s what I really appreciate about Joseph - he just loves his sport and he is trying to do the best he can, even though he is not funded or anything.”
Millar has taken steps to re-enrol in university to complete his sports science degree. He thinks after that he might give teaching a crack.
But his focus for now remains the Olympic Games, and the whispers are, Millar is blitzing it in training.
Heading into the summer season, Henley-Smith says Millar is well ahead of his own charge, Osei-Nketia. It’s hard to gauge, but he thinks Millar could produce times of “ten point zero something, maybe even nine point something”.
There are caveats, of course. A sprinter’s performance can be heavily impacted by the time of day events are run, and the heat and humidity. Even in the New Zealand summer there are limited windows of opportunity to run fast.
Millar is confident he has mastered all the elements he can control.
“I’ve done stuff in training that I’ve never been able to do even in races, and I’ve always been one step up for races,” says Millar.
Some nights I struggle to get to sleep because I’m so excited about the times I’m hitting in training, the margins of improvement I’m putting out week to week, it is all pointing towards running faster than I ever have before.
In part five - THE FINISH - published on Friday, Millar learns if he’ll have a ticket to Tokyo, or not.
After a decade of trying, sprinter Joseph Millar had his best shot yet at making a New Zealand Olympic team. Then, he faltered.
This is THE END of Millar’s race, the last of a five part story about his two years on the edge of the Olympics.
The end came sooner than expected. Just 30 metres into one of the first races, of one of the first events of the 2021 season - that’s when Joseph Millar’s Olympic torch effectively flamed out.
Porritt Stadium in Hamilton, named after Arthur Porritt the pioneer of New Zealand sprinting, has been the stage for Millar’s strongest performances of his career. His New Zealand record in the 200m and personal best in the 100m were both achieved at the track in 2017.
In February, the Porritt Classic was the scene of Millar’s undoing.
Lining up in the start blocks in the heat of the day alongside Eddie Osei-Nketia and Canterbury’s Tiaan Whelpton, who two weeks earlier emerged as a serious contender on the New Zealand sprint scene, the 100m event shaped as an opportunity for Millar to produce a fast time. But the moment he lurches out of the blocks, he does not look comfortable.
Sprinters aim to explode from the blocks, getting taller and taller with each stride until their body is upright. Millar looks lopsided, his head pitched at a strange angle. Quarter of the way down the track, he pulls up suddenly, grabbing his left leg.
Millar hobbles the remaining distance to the finish, crossing the line in what would be recorded as an official time of 17.09 seconds.
“Joseph Millar there not looking good over the line,” the stadium announcer observes as Millar limps off the track, while the two new stars of New Zealand sprinting embrace. After a long wait, Osei-Nketia is declared the winner in a time of 10.28 seconds, with Whelpton a tick behind at 10.30.
“I felt my knee kind of wrench about 30 metres in,” Millar later explains in the shadow of the rustic stand.
Millar has been battling inflammation in his knee for weeks, restricting his ability to train, and severely impacting his performances on the track. The black stickers piled up on his wall planner. It’s not so much as painful, he says, it’s more of a “damp” sensation like he is walking around on a cushion, making him unable to exert force into the ground.
To most realists, it would appear that Millar’s Olympic campaign is over. His early season form and the injury disruption means Millar has been unable to accrue the points he needs to elevate his ranking. His only chance of qualifying is to turn up to the national track and field championships and run faster than he ever has before.
But there is no talk from Millar that this is the end of his season. There is still time, he says. There are still options. He’ll go back to Tauranga, talk to his trusted medical advisors there, maybe get cortisone injections.
He remains outwardly confident if he can just get the issue sorted he is still capable of producing the times he needs.
“On the days I’ve had less swelling in the knee I’m running faster than I ever had. I know that it’s there. I just need a chance.”
That chance did not arrive. Only the creeping realisation that it was over.
In late March, the week before the rescheduled national meet in Hastings, Millar makes the call. His injury has not improved and he isn’t anywhere close to the form he needs to be in to run the times required. He is not going to nationals.
He is not going to Tokyo.
“I knew that it wasn't a case of turning up to qualify, which means running faster than before. The chance of me turning up and running, say, at my previous best and no better - that wasn't going to happen, either. It just turned into one of those things where is this going to be fun or is this going to be a reminder that you’re not where you could have been?” Millar explains.
“I just decided I didn't want to put myself through any more of that.”
Millar is not prepared for this to be the end. The postponement of the Olympic Games has condensed the competition schedule over the next few years. There’s the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year to aim for, along with the world championships.
And, he’s still not willing to shut the door on Paris 2024.
“I think I'm still in the stage of accepting that I won’t be in Tokyo,” says Millar.
“It is hard to tell myself that no, this is not going to happen, but also to understand what that means. To accept that a no now might mean a no forever - I’m not there yet.”
Accepting that he will not be an Olympian would also mean accepting that, unlike the superhero movies that inspired him growing up, there will be no tidy redemptive arc to his career.
Few athletes get their perfect ending. To check every box. To live out the narrative they write for themselves. No matter the effort and the preparation, the outcome can’t be controlled. There are injuries and setbacks, results that sting, unrealised dreams and ‘what ifs?’ that linger on the edge of the subconscious long into retirement.
Millar is asked if he still needs to be an Olympian.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to answer that right now,” he says
“This last year I really went all-in and had the best structure around my training and my life ... I had the most optimism I’ve ever had, where it wasn't ‘I wonder how fast I can run?’ It was ‘I’m going to run fast’.
So in terms of regrets, I really don't have any. I know I gave it everything I had.
Maybe, in the end, all Millar really needs is to know that he died on the line.
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Words: Dana Johannsen
Visual: Ross Giblin, Alden Williams and Getty Images
Design & layout: Aaron Wood
Editor: John Hartevelt