Athletics: Holmes keeps her promise to give a step up to the next generation

Olympic heroine is on a mission to spread her golden gospel, writes Mike Rowbottom in Potchefstroom
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The Independent Online

The side-room in the Potchefstroom physiotherapy block is jam-packed, a single electric fan striving in futility against temperatures which, even by local estimation, constitute a heatwave. Camera crews swelter at the back, journalists and coaches fill the central seats and young female athletes, eight of them British high-fliers, sit in rows at the front. In very orderly rows. For they are directly under the gaze of the small figure who has taken charge of the occasion.

As she points towards the schedule she has written on the board - press conference, motivational speech, masterclass, other interviews - Kelly Holmes speaks with a clarity and assurance that it is hard to recall her demonstrating before in her 11-year career as a world class athlete.

This is the woman who, eight months earlier, subsided in tears of frustration beside the indoor track in Budapest where her ambitions of winning the world 1500m title had come to grief with a fall. This is the woman who finished her final pre-Olympic race, a 1500m in Zurich, in distraction as she agonised aloud over whether doubling up over 800m in Athens would be a good or a bad idea.

Holmes, it seems, has always been an epicentre of swirling emotion, constantly beset by injuries, constantly striving to overcome them, desperate to achieve, tormented by doubt. And since the double Olympic triumph which has elevated her into one of the nation's most celebrated personalities, her life has taken a further bewildering turn. Towards Downing Street receptions. Dinners at Buckingham Palace. Pitchside introductions to England's football supporters, with David Beckham in attendance. Television appearances alongside Sting and Robbie Williams, and, oh yes, Tom Cruise was there too...

Yet here she stands. A former Army Sergeant and PTI Instructor back in command.

And as she surveys the nervously giggling charges who have earned the right to spend a month under her guidance, the old Army tone returns effortlessly to her voice.

"Am I hurting you? I should be. I'm standing on your bleedin' ponytail!"

Well, no. It's not quite like that. But the understanding of authority is equally clear. "I have eyes in the back of my head and everywhere and the girls know that now," Holmes says, with a faint smile. "I'm spying on them every single day - they know what I'm talking about." More giggles.

It was back in January that Holmes had the idea of hosting a camp for promising juniors at her South African training base, set in a neat and quiet Afrikaaners town a couple of hours drive from Johannesburg. Despite the seismic changes of the summer, she has maintained her commitment, with the assistance of Norwich Union.

"Kelly has kept us in a strict regime," said Charlotte Browning, a Loughborough College student who has won four national 1500m titles in the last two years. "We've had lots of drills, lots of motivational talks, and she has been getting us out of our comfort zones.

"The other day we were told to pack our bags and move all our stuff into other rooms to share with different girls. It was a bit like Big Brother - who's being evicted? But it's all practice for what we will encounter on the circuit. We were all starstruck when we met her - to think you are standing next to a double Olympic champion is really incredible. She's really down to earth, but I think it's amazing that she's spent all this time to actually help us.'

At the core of what Holmes is trying to impart to a group of athletes who might help to maintain the standards she has set within British athletics, is the sense of confidence she has sought, not always with success, in her own career. "Confidence is the biggest thing, which I'm trying to teach these girls," Holmes said. "I think the future looks very good for them, because they've all got the ability. But not all of them will make it.

"You can help people with confidence, but you can't actually instil in them the real drive and determination that has to come from within. There are only a few special people who get that."

It is a quality Holmes shares with the other female British athlete currently making the world take notice, Paula Radcliffe, whose Athens fortunes were in such traumatic contrast to her own.

"I feel very sorry that she didn't achieve what she set out to achieve, definitely," Holmes said. "Because she was heartbroken, and so she would be because her goal was to win an Olympic gold medal.

"Unfortunately at the Olympics there's a lot of expectations and outside pressures. It just didn't go right for Paula on the day, and that's what athletics is all about. Mine hasn't gone right for how many times?

"It's just something you have to deal with, and she's dealt with it and come back out of it. She's not Olympic champion, and she's got another four years to wait and see if she can become one. Yes, she won the New York Marathon - brilliant comeback - but it will never overtake not winning an Olympic gold medal. No way."

While Radcliffe appears keen on seeking a first global track title in next year's World Championship 10,000m, Holmes is being cautious about her future racing plans, although at 34 she has no immediate thoughts of retirement.

She is unwilling to commit herself to competing in Helsinki next summer, although she is sketching out the possibility of taking part in a major championship the following year.

"I want to run next season because I know I can," she said. "Obviously I want to run in Britain and to capitalise on my success. And then maybe go to the Commonwealth Games in 2006."

For now, however, Holmes's focus remains on the eight charges whose immediate welfare is her concern. It's a process she would like to repeat - although next time, perhaps, with eight young male athletes. If you're reading this, lads - better start smartening up your act.