Athletics: Rebuilding of a dream Holmes

Athens hope gets into shape of her life as she seeks to restore a golden lustre to middle-distance running

It Seems fitting to reflect that the one and only gold medal Britain has won at world level in a women's middle-distance race was only collected because a shopping trip was cancelled. An ideal Holmes exhibition, after all, is likely to be responsible for the long-awaited second. Thirty-three years after Ann Packer made the fateful decision to take the place she had gained in the Olympic 800m final rather than embark on a planned spending spree in downtown Tokyo, Kelly Holmes heads the list of those who will be shopping for 1,500m gold at the World Championships in Athens.

Holmes, in fact, is a clear leader of the world order. The British and Commonwealth record she set in Sheffield a month ago, 3min 58.07sec, is five seconds quicker than any other female metric miler has run this year. That promising statistic itself would be sufficient to install the retiring Army sergeant as the firm pre-championship favourite. That it happens to be coupled with an unblemished racing record for 1997 has reinforced the golden expectations Holmes will carry on her well- defined shoulders in the Greek capital. In eleven races this year, from a hilly 10km road race in Hastings in January to the 800m final at the British Championships in Birmingham 15 days ago, her form has been invincible. You have to go back to the night of 3 August last year to find the last time Holmes was beaten. And on that occasion the former Army judo champion was a broken woman not just in spirit but in body too.

Viewed with hindsight, and with the perspective of the hairline fracture of the left shin that left her handicapped from the start in the Olympic stakes, reaching the 1,500m final in Atlanta was an achievement in iteslf - all the more so considering the tough cookie from Tonbridge had already battled to within one tenth of a second of a medal in the 800m. After fading from first to 11th in the last 300m of the 1,500m final, Holmes flung her spikes in a dustbin and departed for home on crutches. "My pride was shattered and my heart was broken," she reflected. But the fragments have since been reassembled with a vengeance.

Three years after she first emerged as a potential 1,500m world-beater, when she shattered Yvonne Murray and broke Zola Budd's championship record at the Women's AAA meeting in Sheffield, Holmes has the glint of a gold prospector upon whom you might consider putting your house. As she puts it herself, in her characteristically quick-talking manner: "I'm in the shape of my life. I feel very strong in all aspects of my race."

The strength of the rebuilt Holmes will have been noted with something more than mere interest in a certain household in Alicante. Svetlana Masterkova, the Siberian who trains with her professional cyclist husband in his native Spain, showed a glimpse of the form that won her the 800m and 1,500m double in Atlanta when she sprinted to the Russian 1,500m title in Tula three weeks ago. Her time, 4mins 3.51sec, was sufficient to remind Holmes that the World Championship gold medal is unlikely to be won without a fight. But as the main contenders headed off to their pre-Athens training camps, Masterkova was the one with the greater reason for concern.

Holmes, certainly, is not quaking in her salvaged spikes. Far from it. "I've got to look at all my rivals cautiously," she said. "But the way I've been performing, hopefully they're worried about me. I'm not worried about them at all."

Holmes knows that, at 27, she is finally fulfilling the potential she showed as a schoolgirl international. Her talent was wasted for four years, after she joined the Army in 1988. But then she watched the Barcelona Olympics on television and saw Lisa York, one of her old rivals, running for Britain. "I thought if she could run at that level so could I," she reasoned. And within 12 months the former teenage prodigy was running for Britain in the 800m semi-finals at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.

She was Commonwealth 1,500m champion in 1994 and two years ago edged to the brink of global success at the last World Championships in Gothenburg, when she finished second to the Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka in the 1,500m final and took the bronze medal in the 800m. But now Holmes has emerged as the leader of the pack, without the scars of winter wounds preying on her mind. Her World Championship preparations in 1995 were held up by shin splints until April and last year her Olympic challenge was undermined by a medical assault course - surgery to remove her tonsils, an ovarian cyst operation, a chest infection precipitated by asthma and the final straw of the stress fracture - that might be described as the Crapped On Factor. A less sturdy soul than an Army Physical Training Instructor would have given up long before Atlanta.

This year, though, her gold medal course has remained clear. "The training behind me has just been brilliant," Holmes said. "It's the first time I've ever trained for a whole winter. I've trained through from November with no stops at all. That's what's given me the extra edge. My strength has really improved and I feel good about myself, really confident."

She has looked good too. The edge that had been missing at the sharp end before - when she buckled behind Boulmerka's 61-second last lap in the Gothenburg 1,500m final, when Ana Quirot breezed past her in the 800m that year, and when Masterkova beat her on an unlevel playing field in Atlanta - has been conspicuously prominent this summer. A new strength was evident as Holmes's power-packed 5ft 4in frame tore through the four- minute 1,500m barrier in Sheffield. Burning round the final circuit in sub 60-seconds hinted at improved speed too, a cutting edge that was confirmed when Quirot was left standing in the home straight in the Stockholm grand prix 800m and when Holmes stepped on the gas in the last 300m of the 800m final at the recent British trials.

"What pleased me most about my run against Quirot was that I was able to kick again down the home straight," Holmes said. "In the 800m I've always been in a position where I've come round the bend, tried to get past someone and they've just gone away from me. But I've changed my running action this year and it worked in Stockholm.

"I've got a naturally long stride anyway and I've always thought that lengthening my stride would get me to the line quicker. But that isn't the case. When you lengthen your stride it slows you down. In training I've been cutting down my strides and lifting up my knees, like a sprinter does. It seems to have worked."

The acid test, of course, will come when Sergeant Holmes - who leaves the Army in October - gets her knees up in the home straight of the 1,500m final on Tuesday week. It will not, however, be her only golden shot. After her main event, she tackles the 800m. Quirot, having recovered from her Stockholm reverse to record the year's fastest time - 1 min 55.78 secs - will start the marginal favourite at the shorter distance, which Holmes insists is of secondary importance to her.

One gold would be enough to put the glitter back into British middle- distance running. The last won at world level, by a man or a woman, dates back 13 years now. It was in the summer of 1984, when Sebastian Coe retained his Olympic 1,500m title in Los Angeles, that a 14-year-old 1,500m runner from Kent happened to set out on the gold standard at the English schools' championships at Thurrock. She was pipped on the line in the junior girls' 1,500m final, but Kelly Holmes is top of the class now.

1997: The year of running perfectly

12 January: 10km road race, Hastings, 10km. 1st, 34min 34sec.

21 March: 2,000m, Pretoria. 1st, 5 min 56.22sec.

2 April: 800m, Pretoria. 1st, 2min 1.11sec.

8 April: 1,500m, Cape Town. 1st, 4min 3.41sec.

10 June: 800m, Bratislava. 1st, 1min 58.65sec.

15 June: 1,000m, Leeds. 1st, 2min 32.55sec (British and Commonwealth record).

22 June: 1,500m, European Cup, Munich. 1st, 4min 4.79sec.

29 June: 1,500m, Sheffield. 1st, 3min 58.07sec (British and Commonwealth and UK all-comers' record).

7 July: 800m, Stockholm. 1st, 1min 57.14sec.

11 July: 800m heat, British Championships incorporating world trials, Birmingham. 1st, 2min 6.17sec.

12 July: 800m final, British Trials, Birmingham. 1st, 1min 58.59sec.

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