Kelly Holmes: The extraordinary story of the army girl plagued by injury who never gave up on her dream

Her rivals know her only from her back, as she accelerates away from them and their legs refuse to respond. We are luckier; we've seen her victories from the front, and the thing we'll always remember about Kelly Holmes is her face: that mixture of smile and astonishment in her moments of achievement in Athens.

Her rivals know her only from her back, as she accelerates away from them and their legs refuse to respond. We are luckier; we've seen her victories from the front, and the thing we'll always remember about Kelly Holmes is her face: that mixture of smile and astonishment in her moments of achievement in Athens.

Not for her Seb Coe's patrician look of smooth assumption, Steve Ovett's determined grimace in Moscow, or the strong, silent grace of Steve Redgrave. Holmes's look is one of wide-eyed delight, and it has lit up Britain's Olympics like the throwing of a switch on Blackpool promenade.

And that's not all it illuminates. It shines a light, too, on the story of someone whose success has been nothing like as spontaneous as her grin.

The woman who has now become a sporting legend in the time it takes to boil an egg has travelled a long, injury-strewn road that would have left other, less spirited athletes falling by the wayside. The daughter of a Jamaican father she rarely sees and a British mother who works in a Kent hospital X-ray department, Kelly Holmes first appeared on an athletic track when her mother, Pam, took her along at the age of 12.

Her first coach, Dave Arnold, said last night: "Within a couple of sessions, I could see she was a determined young girl and physically strong. I remember saying to myself: 'That girl's got some talent'. It was noticeable immediately."

She became a successful junior athlete, and then, at the age of 18, she quit running and opted for military life and the role of army physical education instructor. Such a vanishing act happens with many promising athletes and nearly all of them are never heard of again.

But Holmes was different. In 1992, watching the Barcelona Olympics on television, she saw contemporaries on the world stage, and some ember of ambition for success at the highest level was rekindled. She began training in earnest again.

She soon became a British international, dividing her time between the army post and her track career. In 1995, Holmes won silver and bronze medals at the World Championships in Gothenburg, but then came trouble: a series of injuries, including a stress fracture to her foot and an Achilles heel injury. Her first crack at the Olympics, in 1996, saw her finish only fourth in the 800m and 11th over 1500m.

Four years later, she took bronze, and she always seemed to be written up as a "nearly woman". Then she hooked up with Maria Mutola, the Mozambican champion. Kelly never looked back. She won the 1500m Commonwealth Games gold in 2002, and that winter trained in South Africa with world number one Mutola, whom she battled past in the 800m.

The following summer she was hit by a calf injury, but still finished with a silver medal behind Mutola over 800m at the World Championships. Injury problems troubled her again later that year and she admitted that they sometimes caused her to lose heart. "When your body falls apart it gets to you and there are only so many setbacks you can take and only so many things you can come through," she said.

But she did come through, and that smile tells it. She is not the only one whose grins betray a knowledge of what Holmes has had to beat to achieve sporting immortality. Her mother, Pam Thompson, speaking from her home in Hildenborough, near Tonbridge, Kent, where she watched the Games, declared last night: "I'm the proudest mum in Britain tonight. In fact, proud doesn't even begin to describe it. I was really nervous before the race, but Kelly was looking so strong. You could just tell she was going to do it.

"Kelly hoped she'd come away from the Olympics with a gold medal, but I don't think she ever dreamt she'd get two. She's earned so much respect, especially for the age she is. She's 34, she's made history, and she's my girl."

There will be a tremendous homecoming, like the embrace she will receive from the nation. She said: "I just cannot even express the way I feel - it feels like it isn't me and that I am going to wake up in the morning and have to do it all again."

She won't. Her heart and legs have carried her beyond virtually any other name in British athletic history to a plinth all of her own. She deserves to keep that smile for a long time.

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