Forgotten woman Mersh ready to hit the high notes again

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The Independent Online

There were no fanfares when Jo Mersh packed her bags and left her Birmingham home on Wednesday to spend three weeks in Switzerland preparing for her summer challenge for Olympic selection. "People have sort of written me off," she said. "I'm sort of forgotten."

It has been four years since Mersh last pulled on a Great Britain vest. She was Jo Fenn back in 2004, the year she took the 800m bronze medal behind Maria Mutola and Jolanda Ceplak at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest and narrowly missed the qualifying cut for a place in the Olympic 800m final in Athens. Now, at the age of 33 and having reverted to her maiden name, the north London woman of many talents is looking to re-emerge from a prolonged period on the ill-and-injured list and get herself back on track, in one respect at least.

Since moving to Birmingham to work for the Youth Sport Trust, Mersh has placed her promising part-time singer-songwritingcareer on hold as she concentrates on pursuing her Olympic dream. "With not being on Lottery funding any more, I needed to find a job," she said. "I couldn't make a living out of singing and songwriting." Which is a great pity. As lead singer and songwriter with the London-based band The Business, Mersh had songs at Nos 13 and 23 in the European country chart.

Before uprooting from Barnet she also collaborated with Judie Tzuke, whose classic 'Stay With Me Till Dawn' spent 16 weeks in the charts in 1979. "We were working on some songs for an album but it never got finished," she said. "I enjoyed working with Judie. She's a lovely woman. I still keep in touch."

It is with the intention of getting in touch with theBritish 800m runners who have emerged in her absence that Mersh has travelled to Lausanne for three weeks of training with her coach, Trent Stellingwerff, and his wife, Hilary, the Canadian 1500m champion. When Mersh last raced at her specialistdistance, in the end-of-season World Athletics Final in Monacoin September 2004, she was poised to take over from the soon-to-retire Olympic champion Kelly Holmes as thestandard-bearer for British women's 800m running. She had broken through the two-minute barrier outdoors in 2002, clocking 1min 59.86sec, and improved to 1:59.50 indoors in 2004.

Four years on, she will have to duck under two minutes again just to achieve the qualifying standard for Beijing, and also race her way into the top three on the domestic scene, which has acquired new members of the "sub-two club" in the past two years in Becky Lyne, Marilyn Okoro, Jenny Meadows and Amanda Pritchard.

"I still have the same mindset I had in 2004," Mersh said. "I just need some luck. I've got three weeks in Lausanne and then I want to get into a couple of low-key 1500m races. I've done a couple indoors but I need to get the feel of racing on the track again outdoors. I need to race every week to get myself fit, and I'll just have to swallow my pride a bit and see the bigger picture. Mentally, it's probably going to be the hardest year of my career because I've missed four years.

"I just want to keep my head down, start plugging away, ticking off races and getting fitter each week. By July, when the trials come round, I intend to be in contention for the team. People don't think I'm around any more but I still consider I'm a real prospect to make the team.

"In my job with the Youth Sport Trust I go into schools and talk to disengaged kids. When I was injured and on Lottery funding I had access to a psychologist, and I used to pour out my fears and worries. Now the kids are my therapy. They're the best therapy you could get. They're so honest.

"I tell them my story and about trying to get back for the Olympics and they say, 'But Miss, you're 33, you're too old'. I say, 'Yeah, but Kelly Holmes was 34 when she won two gold medals.'

"I've always taken inspiration from Kelly because we've both had pretty similar journeys. The road has had a lot of downs for me in the last few years but I'm very positive. I just want to give 100 per cent and make sure my journey takes me to Beijing."