Kelly Holmes has been this way before. On the road to Athens, that is. Back in 1997, it looked to be paved with gold for her. It proved to be a painful mirage. "No, I haven't been back since," Britain's finest-ever female middle-distance runner says, casting her mind back to the World Championships held in the Athenian Olympic Stadium seven years ago. "I don't actually remember the stadium. I was there for such a short time. It was the first race, on the first morning of the championships. I was there for, what, all of four minutes, five minutes?"
It says a lot for the natural resilience of Holmes - a judo champion in her days as an Army physical-training instructor - that she can reflect upon the biggest blow of her running career with a beaming smile and a self-deprecating laugh. In the 11 years since she first burst on to the international track-and-field scene, she has never had a better chance of winning a global event than when she went to those 1997 World Championships in Athens.
She led the world rankings in the 1500m by five seconds. Instead of striking gold, however, Holmes was struck down in the opening heat. The calf muscle in her left leg went into spasm and she ruptured her Achilles tendon. With typical fortitude, she limped her way to the finish line, so far behind her 10 rivals she was officially registered as a "Did Not Finish". She hobbled to a trackside advertising board and then broke down in tears.
"Yeah, if ever I had a major chance, that was it," she reflects, the pain of the memory patently eased by the passage of time. "I was five seconds faster than anyone else going into those championships. I was really in the shape of my life. To not actually carry that through was heartbreaking.
"The lasting memory for me is of limping down the home straight. It was at the 200m point on the track that it happened. I just remember trying to somehow get round the bend and into the home straight with what felt like a golf ball exploding in my calf. Then I was whisked off to Zurich for treatment. Those are my memories of Athens, so they're not very fond ones."
While Holmes was undergoing surgery in a Swiss clinic, Carla Sacramento of Portugal won the gold medal in 4min 04.24sec. In Sheffield two months previously, Holmes had run 3min 58.07sec, a time which still stands as a British record today.
Of the British track-and-field team for the 2004 Olympic Games, only Paula Radcliffe finds herself occupying the same favoured position that Holmes did on the eve of the last major event in Athens. The nation will be hoping she does not suffer a similar fate in the Olympic marathon on 22 August. So will the British team officials. Contrary to popular perception, though, the marathon world record-holder might not be the one and only golden shot for British athletics glory in Athens.
Given the clouded state of the form book thus far this summer, the race for the women's 1500m title could be wide open. Holmes has a history of collecting medals at global level - World Championships silver at 1500m and bronze at 800m in 1995, Olympic bronze at 800m in 2000, world indoor and outdoor silvers at 1500m in 2003 - and a step up to the gold standard in Athens is not beyond the bounds of possibility for the 34-year-old Kentish woman.
She has only won the one metric-mile race on the Grand Prix circuit this summer, and by her own admission her confidence has been jolted by the fall she suffered in the 1500m final at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in March. In San Sebastian three weeks ago, she did hit impressive winning form at 800m, a distance she intends to contest as "a back-up" in Athens, clocking 1min 58.21sec. A similarly assured performance at the shorter distance in the Norwich Union International in Birmingham today - against Jolanda Ceplak, the European 800m champion - followed by a rousing 1500m run at Crystal Palace on Friday night and in Zurich a week later would send Holmes off to Athens as a potential contender for Olympic gold.
Not that she is keen to bracket herself with the golden girl of British athletics, especially having suffered a calf strain that will necessitate a fitness test before she commits herself to racing at the Alexander Stadium this afternoon. "To be honest, it's good for me that the pressure's on Paula," Holmes says. "I'm just happy to focus on myself. I've had my ups, downs and disappointments. If I can focus on myself and do what I'm capable of doing, we'll just see what happens. That's all I can say."
Holmes has been focusing on herself in recent weeks, training hard at an altitude of 1,860m at a ski resort in the Sierra de Guadarrama, between Segovia and Madrid. It has not escaped her attention, though, that a dominant force has yet to emerge in the women's 1500m this summer. Only one of her rivals has broken four minutes for the distance, and she is unlikely to contest the event in Athens. Elvan Abeylegesse, who clocked 3min 58.28sec in Moscow in May, is expected to concentrate on the 5,000m, the distance at which she set a world record in Bergen in June (and the final of which takes place on 23 August, the day before the 1500m heats).
The Russian Olga Yegorova stands next on the world ranking list, with 4:01.15, but it is the unknown form of Abeylegesse's Turkish team-mate Sureyya Ayhan that Holmes fears most of all. With good reason. Two years ago, Ayhan arrived at the European Championships in Munich without any racing experience that summer. She won gold with a stunning front-running display, and her first race of 2004 is expected to be in the 1500m heats in Athens.
"That's the most scary thing," Holmes says. "You don't know what people are doing. You don't even know if they're actually going to be there. In 2002 Ayhan just came from nowhere, and there's nothing you can do about that. You can only control what you do. I've got to run the best that I possibly can, and at the moment I don't feel that I am. I know I've got to buck my ideas up. Realistically, I have to be in 3min 58sec shape to be in contention. That's what I'm focusing on at the moment: trying to get to that standard."
That focus means ignoring the possibility - for the time being at least - of once again being kept off the top step of the podium by a drugs cheat. Yegorova tested positive for the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin two years ago but escaped punishment on a technicality - the testers had not taken a blood sample to back up the urine test. At the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham in March last year, Holmes took the silver medal behind Regina Jacobs, who subsequently tested positive for the designer steroid tetrahydrogestrinone. Last week, Jacobs announced her retirement, before being banned for four years by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and having her performances annulled dating back to her positive test - at the US Championships in June 2003.
Holmes had hoped Jacobs' results for the whole of 2003 would be declared void. She is happy, though, that USADA's crusade is helping to purge track and field. "It's a positive thing," she says, with no pun intended. "It can only make the sport cleaner."
If the prospect of having to face the tainted Yegorova in the 1500m in Athens is an unfortunate one for Holmes, the thought of being confronted by Maria Mutola in both the metric mile and the 800m is not as forbidding as it might have been. The woman from Mozambique was beaten in Lausanne three weeks ago, her first defeat in two years, and in the Golden League in Paris on Friday she was still suffering from a hamstring problem, finishing last in a 1500m race in which Holmes's British team-mate Hayley Tullett, third at the distance in last year's World Championships, showed potential medal form with an impressive second place.
Holmes has lived and trained with Mutola on the outskirts of Johannesburg for the past two years. The pair follow schedules sent via fax by Mutola's long-time American coach, Margo Jennings. Holmes, though, might still have been putting squaddies through their paces had she not put her feet up to watch the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Switching on the television in her barrack room in York Garrison, she spotted a familiar figure running for Britain in the heats of the 3,000m. It was Lisa York, one of her rivals from her days as an English Schools' champion.
"I thought, 'Wow, I could be doing that'," Holmes reflects. "If she could do it, I was sure I could. It gave me back the dream I had as a kid of running in the Olympics." Twelve years on, the former PTI Holmes is about to live the dream for a third time. Third time lucky, perhaps?
Kelly Holmes MBE
Born: 19 April 1970 in Pembury, Kent.
Championship medals: 1994 Commonwealth Games (1500m gold); 1995 World Championships (800m bronze, 1500m silver); 1998 Commonwealth Games (1500m silver); 2000 Olympics (800m bronze); 2002 Commonwealth (1500m gold), European Championships (800m bronze); 2003 World Indoor Championships (1500m silver), World Outdoor Championships (800m silver).
British records: 800m - 1min 56.21sec; 1000m - 2min 32.55sec; 1500m - 3min 58.07sec.
Personal: Member of Ealing, Middlesex and Southall Athletics Club. Served in British Army from 1987 to 1997.