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Athletics: Holmes at the golden gate again

The gifted athlete who missed out on Budapest makes her comeback today.
KELLY HOLMES has no Hungarian gold to display at the homecoming parade of Britain's Midas-touched European Championship track and field team in suburban Glasgow this afternoon. She will, though, carry a trophy of sorts into the women's mile race in the Spar Challenge meeting on the azure blue track at Scotstoun Stadium. "You can see it," she said, hitching up the left leg of her running tights to reveal the thick scar on her Achilles heel. It matched, almost perfectly, the swoosh logo on her shoes. "Yeah, I suppose it does," she said, chuckling at the ad man's dream that will be a lasting reminder of the nightmare 13 months she has endured.

It was on the eve of the World Championships last summer that Holmes's world started to fall apart. Five seconds clear of her rivals at the top of the 1500m world rankings, she was the leading British contender for gold in Athens - until, that is, her final training session before the championships opened. Holmes lined up for the heats with an injured left heel. Instead of striking gold in the Greek capital, she was struck down in the opening session. She tore her Achilles tendon. In January she had an operation to remove the scar tissue that had formed. It was not a success. In May, with the 1998 track season about to begin, Britain's expected golden girl of 1997 was wondering whether she would ever race again.

"I was at the end of my tether," Holmes reflected, sipping a glass of water in the Scotstoun bar. "The rehabilitation after the operation wasn't going to plan. I was in a lot of pain and I didn't have a lot of mobility in my ankle joint. I didn't know whether or not I was going to be able to come back - both from a psychological and a physical point of view. I really didn't know what I was going to do. I made enquiries about putting my home in Sevenoaks on the market. I was thinking of selling up and going abroad in search of a cure. Then I heard of Ger Hartmann. He's saved my career. I'm sure of that."

Holmes is not the first great British athlete whose running life has been saved by the healing hands of Hartmann. Liz McColgan would have hung up her racing shoes five years ago had she not encountered the physical therapist from Limerick. In Holmes's case, she felt hung, drawn and quartered when Hartmann first got to grips with her. Despite her reputation as a tough of the track, and her background as an Army judo champion and physical training instructor, she was reduced to tears by the Irish guru.

"I was in agony, absolute agony," she confessed. "Ger's a hands-on guy. He breaks down the scar tissue. For four days he worked on me and I was literally in tears, totally in tears. He'd said he'd give it five days and then, if there was no progress, I'd have to think seriously about what I was going to do. Fortunately, after four days he started getting mobility back in my ankle and eventually he got me back running. He told me if I'd carried on the way I was, I probably would have jeopardised the rest of my career."

Instead, thanks to a drop of the uncomfortable Irish treatment, Holmes is ready to relaunch that career on the international stage. After the gold rush of Budapest, the return of the woman who travelled to last year's World Championships as Britain's one big golden shot will lend a particularly poignant touch to this afternoon's proceedings on Clydeside. The neat, petite Scotstoun Stadium will be packed to its 4,500 capacity to celebrate the nine European Championship golds gathered in the Hungarian capital by the British team, who face a less than full-strength United States squad. Holmes runs with Paula Radcliffe in the mile, her first test at international level since the morning she lined up in Athens with the weight of Britain's World Championship expectations on her shoulders.

Like the rest of the nation, she watched Britain's Budapest success unfold on television - apart from the afternoon session on the penultimate day, that is. Holmes temporarily vacated her armchair seat eight days ago to test her fitness in the Southern Women's League meeting at Bedford. She duly picked up where she left off before Athens, winning the 3,000m in 9min 10.23sec - her 11th victory in 12 track races since the start of last year.

"Just the fact that I was on the track and racing round was a brilliant feeling," she said. "The main objective was to check that my leg was OK and it was fine. I had no reaction whatsoever. I feel fit and raring to go now. I'm just pleased that I'm back running again. It's given me a lift, a motivation, and that love of the sport back. Hopefully, the mile on Sunday will give me a good insight as to where my fitness is. With Paula running, it's not going to be easy. But that will be good for me. It'll be a good test before I go to the Commonwealth Games."

That Holmes, after such a troubled year, is even contemplating the defence of her Commonwealth 1500m title in Kuala Lumpur next month bears testimony to the natural fighting spirit that makes her such a formidable contender whenever she pulls on her racing spikes. At 28, she has become accustomed to picking herself off the floor. In 1995 she overcame shin splints to win silver, at 1500m, and bronze, at 800m, in the World Championships in Gothenburg. A year later, the former Army sergeant endured a physical assault course somewhere between the Krypton and the Crapped-on Factor as she recovered from operations to remove her tonsils and an ovarian cyst - and asthma too - only to be stricken by a stress fracture in the Olympic Games.

Last year Holmes bounced back with a vengeance, topping the 1500m world rankings before Athens with the 3min 58.07sec she clocked in Sheffield in July. Her specialist event, however, has since moved on. The nine Chinese runners who unceremoniously knocked her down the world order last October have been suspiciously quiet this year. But nine women have broken four minutes in 1998 - among them two Kenyans who will be challenging Holmes in Kuala Lumpur. Jackline Maranga relieved Holmes of the Commonwealth record in Monte Carlo three weeks ago, running of 3:57.41. And Naomi Mugo, in the same race, clocked 3:58.12.

"What's happened in the 1500m over the past year has been disorientating," Holmes said. "I can't help thinking, 'If only I hadn't been injured I could have been world champion.' Nobody else was near me at the time. And now, in just the space of a year, everyone I was beating outright has beaten my best ever time. If they've improved then obviously I can take a step forward too. But it is pretty frightening when you look at the world rankings this year.

"The Commonwealth Games is not an easy target. The Kenyan girls are going to be there and I've got to be better than them. I just want to get to Kuala Lumpur in one piece, without any injuries, and then take each race as it comes. Obviously if I get to the final then my only aim will be to win the gold. If I get that far, I feel I should be capable of retaining my title. That's what I want."

The glint was back in Kelly Holmes's eyes as she spoke - the glint of a golden chance in the international fast lane once again.