Athletics: Clitheroe ready at last to escape Holmes' shadow

Britain's number one 1500m runner of 2005 just happened to be in Kelly Holmes country when the top-ranked metric miler of 2004 announced she would be hanging up her spikes - and swapping them for ice-skates, initially, at any rate. There was a certain irony to it. After all, Helen Clitheroe has been out of synch with the retiring dame of the track for some time now.

Last year, when Holmes was busy working her way through her annus mirabilis, Mrs Clitheroe was enduring an annus that was just a plain horrible pain in the backside. Struggling to get back to her sharpest racing form after overcoming a long-term pelvic problem, the Preston Harrier was in tears after narrowly failing to secure an automatic qualifying place at the British Olympic trials in Manchester. She was inconsolable again after chasing the Olympic qualifying time at Crystal Palace and falling over in mid-race.

Sixteen months on, having missed out on Athens and a role in the drama that produced gold medals for Holmes in the 800m as well as the 1500m, Clitheroe is in Potchefstroom, the South African university town her now-former British team-mate has long used as her training base - preparing to challenge for the Commonwealth 1500m crown that Holmes will not defend in Melbourne next March. "Yes, it is the same place," Clitheroe said. "If it's good enough for Kelly Holmes, it's good enough for me.

"I wasn't totally surprised to hear Kelly had retired. I thought she might do the Commonwealths for a last bow, but she has nothing to prove to anyone. She has been an inspiration to me, especially as I came on to the international scene late. She has proved that age needn't be a problem. I remember racing against her for the first time and being totally star-struck.

"It is one less person to worry about, in terms of the Commonwealth Games, but I would still have liked to have competed against her, because I feel I'm getting back into good shape. In 2002, when I was running well, I felt I was getting closer to her. I would have liked to have seen how I fared against her, but I wish her a happy retirement."

Back in 2002, Clitheroe led at the bell in the Commonwealth 1500m final in Manchester and finished with the bronze medal, behind Holmes and Hayley Tullett. She also reduced her personal best that summer to a mightily impressive 4min 1.10sec. Then came pelvic injury in 2003 and heartache in 2004, but this year - at 31, and under the guidance of John Nuttall, the Commonwealth 5,000m bronze medallist of 1994 - the former lifeguard has managed to get back into the swim of things.

In March she finished fourth in the 1500m at the European Indoor Championships in Madrid (and was denied a deserved bronze by the staggering decision not to disqualify Hind Dehiba of France, who blatantly impeded her as she was about to launch her attack for the line off the final bend). In August she reached the 1500m final at the World Championships in Helsinki, taking 10th place - just behind Carmen Douma-Hussar of Canada, the only athlete ahead of her in the Commonwealth rankings for 2005.

By the time the Commonwealth Games of 2006 come round, just three months from now, Clitheroe will be one of the leading contenders for Dame Kelly's 1500m crown. She might even have some support from the non-defending champion. She is certainly owed some, having choked back the disappointment of missing the 2004 Olympics to cheer Holmes to victory from home.

"Obviously I wanted to be there myself, "Clitheroe reflected, "but watching Kelly's wins in Athens were the best moments of sport I have ever watched. I was dancing round my living room, like the rest of Britain, screaming at the television. I'm sure my neighbours think I'm mad."