Athletics: Holmes bows out at top and runs into distance with fresh goals to pursue

Kelly Holmes reached the pinnacle of her career with double Olympic gold in Athens and knew now was the right time to go. Mike Rowbottom reports
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High emotion has been a constant in Kelly Holmes' 12-year athletics career, and it accompanied her announcement yesterday that she had decided to retire.

The 35-year-old double Olympic champion's decision not to attempt a last hurrah at the Commonwealth Games in March is a logical one, especially as she has struggled with injury in recent months. But she explained that it had been confirmed by her shock at hearing of the unexpected death last month of an Irish sports businessman, Tim O'Brien, a friend of her Limerick-based physiotherapist, Gerard Hartmann.

The three had gone to lunch in September when Holmes had visited Hartmann en route to her training base in South Africa, and she had got on very well with O'Brien, who planned to involve her in a training clinic in Limerick next year. But soon after departing, she heard from Hartmann that O'Brien had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and been given just four weeks to live.

"I'd been at lunch with this guy with all these plans and dreams, and yet by the time I came back to Ireland he was dead," Holmes said. "I hadn't made up my mind about retiring before, but somehow, after learning about Tim, it dawned. I thought 'Why stress yourself any more? Why the hell are you worried about putting pressure on yourself when you've done everything you ever wanted to anyway?' It was a real eye-opener, a life-changing experience.

"Once I had got back into training I knew I didn't want to do this any more. I didn't feel motivated to try and win another Commonwealth title. Even if I'd come second in Melbourne it wouldn't have been enough for me, so I was putting myself under big pressure. And ultimately I thought 'No, there's other things I want to do and it's time to enjoy just being me.' Hartmann yesterday revealed the sequence

of events that had taken place at his Limerick clinic as Holmes considered her future while getting back into shape after finishing what proved to be her last race, on 21 August in Sheffield, at a hobble.

"After she injured her Achilles earlier this year she came to me and said that she just wanted to be fit enough to get round two laps at the meeting in Sheffield so she could say goodbye to the British crowd," Hartmann said.

"She had been doing really well before the race, but five days before she did one session too much and she was hobbling. When she had run she came back here, and she could hardly walk."

Holmes returned to Limerick after taking a month's rest and, following her lunch with O'Brien, she and Hartmann settled on 26 September as decision day.

"We spent the whole day talking about the pros and cons," recalled Hartmann, who has treated a succession of the world's leading middle distance runners including Liz McColgan, Sonia O'Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe. "My advice was that she should retire. I've worked with a lot of athletes over the years. I sat down with Peter Elliott

in 1995 and I had to tell him that I didn't think he could carry on.

"Any athlete must try and get out of their career gracefully - in a good state, psychologically, emotionally and commercially. Kelly was a double Olympic champion. She had reached the highest pinnacle. And I said to her 'Are you sure you want to go five more months for a Commonwealth gold that you have already won twice before?'

"At around 10 o'clock that night we both agreed that retiring was the best decision, but I wanted her to go away and think about it to make sure she was certain. Not just sleep on it overnight, but to consider it when she was back in South Africa. It is really hard for an athlete to retire. And obviously there were people who wanted her to continue for various other reasons.

"I could bring her to the water, but only she could drink it. We still had plans to support her competing in the Commonwealth Games if that was what she wanted to do. She texted Tim and sent cards to the hospital throughout her time in South Africa. I was very moved at the way she had kept in touch, and at the lovely things she had said. But when she got back to Limerick, I had to tell her that Tim had been buried the previous day.

"I've known Kelly for many years, at good times and bad, but I had never seen her in that state before. She was totally, totally upset. She was crying for more than an hour. The only thing I could think of was that she had never faced death in her life. But I think she would have made the same decision even if Tim had not been ill."

Hartmann added that, several years before her Olympic success, he had sent Holmes an anonymous poem that had inspired him as a young sportsman, the closing lines of which read:

"Often the struggler has given up when he might have captured the victor's cup,

And he learned too late when the night came down how close he was to the golden crown

You can never tell how close you are, it may be near when it seems afar

So stick to the fight when you are hardest hit, it's when things seem worst that you must never quit."

He added: "If that sums up any athlete, it's Kelly."

Meanwhile, Dame Kelly Holmes, double Olympic champion and BBC Sports Personality of the Year - at least until this Sunday - is setting about the rest of her life. The preamble to yesterday's announcement offered a clear hint at her new status - questions had to be brief, as she had to leave to film a New Year's Day television special.

Holmes will keep in touch with athletics through the regular training camps she has set up with a group of promising young female runners, but her next challenge will be on a less firm footing as she takes part in the ITV series Dancing on Ice, to be screened in the new year, in which she and other celebrities attempt to learn ice dance with the firm guidance of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

Doubling up The two golden races

* 800 METRES Most thought Holmes had peaked with her Olympic bronze medal in 2000 but the 34-year-old arrived in Athens in great shape. The 800m was the domain of her training partner, Maria Mutola, the defending Olympic champion. But Holmes' decision to contest the two-lap race looked justified as her push for home around the final bend offered the hope of a medal. Incredibly, as she outmuscled the muscular Mutola and held off fast-finishing Hasni Benhassi of Morocco, the medal became gold. Only when the scoreboard confirmed victory by 0.05sec did she acknowledge the enormity of her achievement with a look that is part of Olympic history.

* 1500 METRES Relaxed in the knowledge that she had achieved all she had ever dreamed of, Holmes was in a perfect state of mind to seek a double that exceeded her dreams. The hardest thing for her was forgetting the gold medal that was already safely won. Although she had run patchily over 1500m in previous weeks, everything came together as she moved, apparently effortlessly, to the front of the pack in the home straight and earned a reasonably comfortable victory in 3min 57.90sec. She had become the first Briton to win the Olympic 800/1500m double since Albert Hill in 1920. And she had changed her life forever.

Making of a champion From life in the Army to glorious highs in Athens

* 1970: Born 19 April, Pembury, Kent.

* 1987: Joins Army.

* 1992: Returns to athletics.

* 1993: World Championship semi-finals.

* 1994: European Championships 1500m silver. Commonwealth 1500m gold.

* 1995: World Championships 800m bronze, 1500m silver.

* 1996: Fourth in Olympics 800m, 11th in 1500m.

* 1997: Ruptures Achilles at World Championships.

* 1998: Commonwealth 1500m silver.

* 2000: Olympics 800m bronze.

* 2002: Commonwealth 1500m gold in Manchester. European Championships 800m bronze.

* 2003: World Indoor Championships, 1500m silver. World Championships, 800m silver.

* 2004: Ninth in World Indoor Championships. 23 August: Olympic 800m gold in Athens. 28 August: Olympic 1500m gold. December - BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Made a Dame.

* 2005: July - Pulls out of World Championships with Achilles tendon injury.

August - Limps home ninth in final track appearance at Sheffield. December 6 - Announces retirement.