Athletics: A tough woman soldiering on with two careers: The dynamic Corporal Holmes has to make a career choice that is anything but elementary. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
KELLY HOLMES is 5ft 4in and eight and a half stone. She is quietly spoken, with a ready smile. But she has - she points out - a very loud voice when she shouts.

That is something Corporal Holmes of the Adjutant General's Corps at Aldershot - to give her her full title - often has to do in her work as a physical training instructor. In today's amalgamated modern Army, she trains men as well as women. And the manifest toughness of a woman who looks like becoming one of the best British middle distance runners for many years does much to engender the atmosphere of respect in which she operates.

Three months ago she ran in the men's 1500 metres at the Army Championships in order to get competition. She finished sixth. Behind her were several weary and sheepish paras.

Six months ago, in qualifying to appear as a challenger in this summer's Gladiators TV programme - which she will sadly miss because it clashes with the European Championships - she was asked to run 800 metres on a treadmill. Male competitors began to stumble and fall as they attempted to match her. She completed her test in what was, for her, a relatively modest time of 2min 8sec.

At 24, Holmes - who runs the 1500m in this weekend's European Cup - is beginning to earn the attention that might have been hers for several years had she not ended a highly promising junior career by joining the Army at 18. For a while, the girl who had earned two English Schools titles at 1500m and won all three of the junior internationals for which she was selected gave up athletics altogether.

She became Army judo champion, reaching blue belt standard. She played in the Army volleyball team. She learned to play and referee a host of other sports. But athletics tugged her back. Spurred by watching Lisa York, her contemporary, performing well at the Barcelona Olympics, Holmes began to train seriously again.

Last summer she reached the 800 metres semi-final at the World Championships, missing a place in the final by one position despite the fact that her time, an English record of 1min 58.64sec, was better than that of the first four in the other semi.

The weekend before last, at the national championships and trials, her sprint against the European 3,000 metres champion, Yvonne Murray, all down the final straight of the 1500 metres was one of the most eye-catching performances of the meeting. It was close. Holmes won.

'Kelly just doesn't quit,' said Dave Arnold, who, but for a four-year Army interlude, has coached Holmes since she was brought down to the Tonbridge AC track by her mother at the age of 12. 'She has always been a naturally strong person.'

Earlier this year, Holmes provided further evidence of her toughness as she came through a gruelling series of mental and physical challenges as part of an Army selection process. The experience of hauling chained logs across rough terrain in a six-man team while wearing full combat gear was one which tested her limits. She hurt her back. And the Achilles tendon problems for which she is receiving treatment may well have stemmed from running in 'combat highs' - unyielding boots which come halfway up the calf. But she had her reward. Only 13 of the 35 taking part went through. Only one was a woman. Yes, the 8 1/2 st stone dynamo.

'I regard myself as a soldier who is a part-time athlete,' Holmes said. Thus far the combination has worked well for her, just as it did for the warrant officer who was in charge of the gym at her first posting near Southampton, a certain Kriss Akabusi. But the path ahead appears to fork.

The sergeant's course for which she has qualified starts in January and lasts eight months - which would wipe out the 1995 World Championship season for her. It represents the next step on the ladder for her Army ambitions. To turn it down would mean resigning herself to service as a corporal - there is an age limit on promotion from her particular rank.

'It's a big decision, and I don't know what to do,' she said. 'A lot will depend on how I get on in the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games this season. I have to let the Army know by December. It is very difficult because there is no guarantee that I could earn my living as a full-time athlete. And if I got injured, I would have lost two careers.'

In the meantime, she is attempting to concentrate her attention on the demands of this weekend's event in the Alexander Stadium. She goes into her event as the fastest European this season thanks to her time of 4min 01.41sec at Sheffield, which was the fastest by a Briton since 1988. By the time she leaves the sport, she wants to be British record holder at either 800m or 1500m or both. Given her performances in the last 12 months, that seems a conservative ambition.

(Photograph omitted)