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Athletics: Holmes benefitting from new realism

SO IMMERSED was Kelly Holmes in her return to the athletics scene in Glasgow on Sunday that she missed the team bus back to the hotel because she was signing autographs. She knows now, however, that she is not going to miss the bus as far as the Commonwealth Games are concerned.

On an afternoon when the overall mood was one of celebration, with a sell-out crowd eager to acknowledge Britain's returning European champions, there was a tension about Holmes's race over a mile which had to do with the fear - hers, and the spectators' - that her first serious competition after a 13-month absence with injury might end in tears.

After a cautious start, the way in which she broke clear of Paula Radcliffe just before the bell answered the unspoken question in everybody's minds. The sharpness was still lacking, but the strength, and competitive spirit, were still there.

Holmes will not race again before starting the defence of the 1500 metres title she won in Victoria four years ago. Instead, she will travel to Ireland for further treatment with the massage therapist whom she credits with saving her career, Ger Hartmann.

After breaking down in the heats of last year's world championships with a ruptured Achilles tendon, the 28-year-old Tonbridge athlete has endured a nightmarish period of exile. Following an ineffective operation to clear scar tissue in January, she was still questioning whether she had a future in the sport as late as of May.

"It was a lonely, hard year," she said. "It got to the stage where I just didn't know where to look. Your mind starts to play tricks on you when you can't see any way of getting back. I wasn't going to give up, but it was very hard to see a future."

But the future was bright; the future was Hartmann. Through Britain's team doctor, Malcolm Brown, Holmes was put in contact with the man whom Liz McColgan said had saved her career four years ago, and the work of rehabilitation began in earnest.

For four days, as Hartmann manipulated the scar tissue on her leg to restore mobility to her ankle, the woman who used to be an Army PT instructor and judo champion was reduced to tears. "It was agony," she said. "But it was worthwhile."

Holmes's sequence of injuries in recent years - shin splints in 1995, a stress fracture which she attempted in vain to disregard at the 1996 Olympics - has caused many to question whether she has tended to over- train. Her most recent injury occurred during a final session of preparation for last year's world championships, which she had approached in the form of her life.

She says now that she has altered her approach. "I've learnt what things my body can and can't take," she said. "There is a line between being very fit and being injured, and you don't always know where the line is. But if I'm tired now, I will have a rest day, whereas before I would probably just have gone out for another session."

On a smaller scale, Glasgow represented a confirmation of health for another British woman athlete, namely Allison Curbishley, who set a Scottish All Comers' 400m record of 50.73sec. For Curbishley, who plans to move up to 400m hurdles next season, it was an unexpected bonus after a European Championship where her disappointment at finishing only fifth in the individual event was tempered by the relay medal.

"I was in the shape of my mind and I really saw myself being up there," she said. "When you are not, you go back to the team hotel really desolate. Now I am back in `pb' ways and, as the cliche goes, I'm over the moon."