Kelly Holmes: 'I was so desperate'

Dame Kelly, golden girl of athletics, says injury and depression forced her so low before her double victory at the Athens Olympics that she cut herself with scissors. By Anthony Barnes and Elizabeth Heathcote
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The Independent Online

For the best part of a decade, her life has been a treadmill of gruelling training and punishing races. Now, Britain's greatest female Olympian, Dame Kelly Holmes, has begun to wind down, to enjoy the spoils, to plan for the future. She is even enjoying her first holiday in eight years; this weekend she is sunning herself in South Africa.

But before the glory of Olympic double gold came pain and mental torment. Holmes, 35, has battled extreme lows: in 2003 she sank into an abyss of injury-prompted depression which drove her to cut herself in desperate acts of frustration.

"I became depressed and I cut myself with scissors and stuff," she says on Desert Island Discs, to be broadcast today on BBC Radio 4. "You don't ever think you are going to, but I got desperate for things to go right, you know?"

She had overcome injury to run in 2003, but then hurt her calf and ankle with only a year to go to the Olympics. "This dream was such a big passion that everything kind of clouded me and [I thought] 'I'm never going to do it'," Dame Kelly says. "When you are in that state everything is bad, everything in my life was wrong. I never experienced that low before. When you are in it, you don't see a way out."

She was saved, she told The Independent on Sunday, by hard work and a deep-seated belief in herself that ultimately proved stronger than the depression. "Since the age of 14 I have believed that whatever barriers came my way, I would be Olympic champion one day."

The unassuming Holmes became a household name in 2004 with her astounding wins in the 800m and 1,500m finals at the Athens Olympics and her goggle-eyed look of astonishment and joy as she crossed the finish line to take her second gold of the games.

Although Holmes is not religious, she recalls that she felt some sort of presence at the time of her Olympic triumphs. "I do believe that something helped me when I was at the Olympic Games. I remember sitting on my bed [in the Olympic village] and thinking of what was to come and this gust of air circled around my body. It was such a weird sensation - something was there, I just don't know what it was."

She was the toast of the British squad and a national heroine, and was given a civic reception in her home town of Tonbridge in Kent. Within months she had been made a Dame in the New Year honours list. The experience altered perceptions of her, giving her a major public profile for the first time, but she remains unchanged in herself.

"I believe that winning the two gold medals that put me in the history books changed the way people look at me, but it didn't change me. I believe you should make your own choices. That has been my life. I am still exactly the same person I was when I was tiny. In fact, hopefully I am nicer," she joked.

Last summer she was again hounded by injury, so much so that in her last UK race, in August, she limped home in ninth place. Her anticipated decision to retire came four months later, freeing her from a six-days-a-week training and eating regime. She now runs just three times a week, for 45 minutes at a time, which in Olympian terms is hardly running at all. "I believe that there should be some time in your life when you say, 'I am just doing what I want to do now.' I am looking forward to it."

Holmes discovered her running talent at the age of 12 and became a successful junior athlete. But by the age of 18 she had given up the track for military life, becoming an army physical education instructor. While many gifted athletes give up early and never fulfil their potential, few return to the field. But Holmes became re-energised when she saw her contemporaries taking part in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and she decided to begin serious training again.

She soon became a British international and by 1995 had won silver and bronze medals at the World Championships in Gothenburg. But a series of injuries, including a stress fracture and a recurring achilles problem, bedevilled her career. Her first Olympic bid in 1996 finished with a fourth-placed 800m attempt and in the 1,500m she was way back in 11th place. She bettered that four years later with a bronze medal and then with a Commonwealth Games gold. Then came the lows before the highs of Athens, which shocked her as much as anyone.

"I believe you should never, ever give up," she now says. "At least if you have given something 100 per cent you can say you have tried and have no regrets. I believe that anything is achievable as long as the goal is realistic. If someone sets their heart and mind on something, it is achievable."

Since turning her back on high-level competition, Dame Kelly has undergone a physical transformation: as she has learned to relax, she has begun to think more about her appearance, wearing dresses, make-up and high heels, rather than the tracksuits to which her friends and family have become accustomed. It is fun, she says. After all, she has had the chance to rub shoulders with a string of showbusiness stars since her medal-winning success - Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Sir Elton John among them.

She sees her future as helping others to fulfil their potential. Dame Kelly does not rule out the possibility of getting involved with some sort of training academy or doing a Jamie Oliver for school sports. Preliminary steps in that direction have included mentoring talented youngsters and holding training camps. "I believe that all children have something special in them and I enjoy working with them, helping them to realise what that is. I hope I inspire them to make something of their lives. Children are so easily influenced by peer pressure and society."

An extension of that is her latest project. She is bringing her training techniques to a wider audience with a fitness DVD aimed at people who have never previously tried any exercise.

Although she now has a little more leeway to give in to her indulgences - chocolate and Chinese food - it is still important for her to retain her own fitness. She is expanding her skills by training for an ice-dancing reality show for ITV1 to be screened early this year, after she returns from her holiday in South Africa.


BORN: April 19, 1970 in Pembury, Kent.

FIRST STEPS: Begins running competitively at the age of 12; a year later she wins the English Schools 1,500m title.

CAREER: Joins the Army aged 18. At first she operates heavy-duty trucks before becoming a physical training instructor.

BACK ON TRACK: Returns to competitive running in 1992; a year later Holmes is a semi-finalist at the World Championships.

MEDAL WINNER: By 1994 she has picked up a European silver medal and a gold at the Commonwealth Games, both for 1,500m. At the World Championships the following year she adds a bronze for the 800m and silver for 1,500m.

DASHED HOPES: She runs her first Olympics at Atlanta '96 with a stress fracture and misses out on the medals. Ruptures her achilles in first heat of World Championships in 1997.

OLYMPIC GLORY: Wins 800m bronze in Sydney. Begins training in South Africa in 2002 with new training partner Maria Mutola, which helps to up her game. Wins 800m and 1,500m titles at Olympic Games in Athens 2004.

FINISHING LINE: Named BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2004 and is made a Dame; announces her retirement in December 2005.

Kelly Holmes's DVD, 'First Steps to Fitness', is out now, price £17.99