Athletics: Holmes runs on after heart and mind rebuild

Mike Rowbottom reports from Munich on the international return of the Army sergeant who left Atlanta on crutches
I t was eight weeks before Kelly Holmes could throw away the crutches on which she left last summer's Olympic Games.

Her running shoes also got the chuck in the wake of her ultimately fruitless struggle against injury in Atlanta. Fortunately for British athletics, only the crutches stayed binned.

"I retrieved my spikes, because despite everything I had run in them at the Olympics," said Holmes, who returns to international action here tomorrow in the European Cup. "But the gesture was genuinely meant. I was ready to give up."

The 27-year-old Army sergeant, who began her career in the services as a physical training instructor, is one of the toughest characters around. However, even she found it hard to cope with the pain she experienced in running the Olympics with a stress fracture of her left shin.

Her schedule was daunting enough for a fully fit athlete. She ran three rounds in the 800 metres, missing the bronze medal by just a tenth of a second, and then contested another three rounds in the 1500m, where she finished 11th.

Her misery at incurring an injury on the eve of the Games was compounded by misfortune just half an hour before her last race, when a pain-killing injection hit a nerve and deadened her leg, leaving it feeling, in her own words, like a lump of meat.

Her final, faint hope of improving on the silver and bronze medals she had won at the previous year's World Championships vanished in that moment. She changed her tactics for the final, going to the front and hanging on - agonised, agonisingly - for as long as possible before all but one of the field came past her in the final 200m. But she knew that she had no real chance.

"I had gone to the Olympics thinking `here we go'. I just couldn't believe what happened to me," she said. "There is only so much you can take. I was so gutted, I'd had enough. My heart was broken, mentally I'd gone, everything...

"I put myself down, really. It was my own expectation, because I knew I was capable of getting a medal."

Holmes gives credit to her room-mate, Tessa Sanderson, who was competing in her sixth Olympic javelin competition at the age of 40, for persuading her to compete.

"I was saying, `I hate these Olympics, I thought they were going to be something really special, but it's the worst time in my life.' But Tessa was really great. She kept telling me to think positive."

Holmes was as positive as anyone could be in the circumstances, but no amount of constructive thinking could offset the fact that she had missed two weeks' training immediately before the Games.

The day before she left for Munich, Holmes was on the phone to Diane Modahl, Britain's former Commonwealth 800m champion, who also suffered a stress fracture recently.

"She is as good as she can be right now," Holmes said. "But I know how devastated she feels. Hopefully, she has been diagnosed early enough to retrieve something from the season."

What helped to persuade Holmes back into a competitive frame of mind was a highly successful spell of winter training in South Africa.

"I was able to focus on my athletics like never before," she said. "It was just what I needed after Atlanta. I needed to build myself up physically and mentally."

Proof of her improvement came last week when she broke the British 1,000m record in Leeds. "I was particularly pleased with that because it was a freezing cold day," she said.

Zola Budd's British 1,500m record remains one of her main targets for the season, although it is more likely to be broken at the British Grand Prix on 29 June than in the tactical race which is likely to take place here.

For all the trauma of Atlanta, Holmes does not regret taking part last year. "I would never do that," she said. "If I had not run, it would always have been a case of `what if?' I would have always regretted pulling out of my first Olympics. They could have been my last - you don't know what will happen in athletics.

"But if I went through all this and still got fourth place in the Olympics, what can I do when I get a perfect year?"

A very interesting question. Touch wood, 1997 is looking good so far.