Dame Kelly Holmes: Inspirational tale of a long dark journey

The queen of British distance running had to fight a succession of personal battles but now the former army instructor helps others to fulfil their potential. Alan Hubbard speaks to Dame Kelly Holmes
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The Independent Online

It is five years ago this month that Kelly Holmes set the world of sport alight by twice storming through the tape in Athens to win gold medals in the 800 and 1500 metres, the first British woman ever to do an Olympic double, an accomplishment that was to transform her life.

Since then she has been the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, received a standing ovation on Parkinson, Danced on Ice, launched a cruise ship and famously turned down a film premiere date with another Cruise – Tom – "because my mum said I couldn't go as I was tired and didn't have anything to wear". And, oh yes, she's become a dame.

Five years on and the former Army physical training instructor from Kent is still running. Not on the track anymore, of course, but here, there, virtually everywhere, breathlessly busy with myriad projects most of which carry her name and are designed to keep youngsters on track – not only in athletics but in life itself.

We meet in the rather swish City offices loaned to her by Royal & Sun Alliance, one of the several sponsors backing her enterprises, and she dashes in from helping Government ministers – she seems to be their favourite sporting A-lister – launch a new scheme for youth employment.

We mention the anniversary and immediately she admits she still gets emotional when she thinks of Athens. "I remember the first gold as if it was yesterday and after the second I cried every morning when I woke up and put the medals on, and sometimes I still do. I relive those moments almost every day. I do a lot of motivational speaking and show a montage of me winning the medals. It still brings a lump to my throat and I get teary-eyed because it means so much to me."

It may have changed her life, she says, but she was determined it would not change her. "Everyone expected that it would make me a different person but I'm still me. I had started my career at 12 and from aged 14 it was my aspiration to be an Olympic champion. I loved what I did and I always had my goals but it was a hellish journey, the illnesses, the injuries, the depression a year before the Olympics. It was the hardest time of my life."

She had been diagnosed with clinical depression after once locking herself in a bathroom and cutting her left arm with a scissors blade, one cut for everyday she had been injured. She sought help and sorted her life again. "To know you can be a winner but to keep getting hammered by injuries, well it is enough to get anyone down so actually my journey was a roller-coaster of emotion, both psychologically and physiologically.

"The pressures. God, the pressures – when I think of them now. As I say, it was a journey and a half. But the only way is to fight your way out and keep going until the dream comes true. That's the message I try to give to the young athletes I work with now."

That journey has now carried her to a new, prestigious peak. She has just become the president of Commonwealth Games England, taking over from another track legend, Sir Chris Chataway. "When I got the call I could hardly believe it. Such an honour. I have always loved the Commonwealth Games, having competed in three [Victoria, Kuala Lumpur and Manchester], winning two golds and a silver.

"These play an important part because they offer athletes the experience of a major multinational event which can be their showcase for the Olympics. But in England they need and deserve a higher profile. Which is what I hope to bring to them.

"The fact that the next Games are in Glasgow in 2014 and so many Olympic athletes will be competing after London 2012 will also help raise them in people's consciousness.

"In my own life I have always tried to achieve something. It's what makes me tick. I still take it day by day but I never thought I'd end up as president of such an organisation or chair my own charity, let alone become a dame."

Of course, there's nothing like a damehood for opening doors. These have led her into the boardrooms of major corporations, several of which support the eight charities with which she is associated. Her own special one is the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, which focuses on giving young people, some of them disadvantaged, the opportunity to fulfil their potential through sporting and physical challenges with the help of elite performers. Another aspect deals with the problems of competitors when they retire or have to pick up the pieces of a shattered career. "Unfortunately most athletes don't think past achieving their dream so never know what to expect when it all ends. We try to help them think ahead."

Then there is On Camp With Kelly, her programme for young athletes whom she personally mentors. It started with eight and now there are 56 (45 girls and 11 boys), concentrating largely on 800m and 1500m junior runners, distances with which she is especially familiar. "The idea is to guide them through the difficult transition to senior level. I'm hands on but I've got a brilliant team. It is not just about training and coaching. We have cookery courses to teach them about diet and nutrition and we recently ran a programme on energy deficiencies in young females caused by eating disorders, menstrual disfunction and osteoporosis, all caused by pushing bodies to extremes.

"I started these camps even before I won my golds because I want these kids to know what the journey is like, to recognise the pitfalls, see them coming and be able to pick themselves up when they are down as I did because these things are critical if you are to be a champion. You can't become one just by running fast."

And one of the maxims drummed into them is: don't do drugs. "Luckily most of the youngsters I work with are very level-headed and passionate about their ambitions. But you have to instil in them that drugs are a no-no at any price. Sport is about total dedication and being able to say 'I did it by being clean'. Those who take drugs are cheating not only themselves but their families, their friends, the fans as well as their opponents.

"If they have the talent, the ability and the commitment they'll get there anyway. I tell them I can be proud of what I did because I gave it one hundred per cent through absolute hard work and I could stand on the rostrum and say: 'This is me. I believed in myself. I did not need anything else to help get me here.'

"We have seen only last week [with the Jamaican sprinters] that the use of drugs is still a nightmare for the sport, which is why it is so vital to get the message across because a sport cannot survive with cheats. OK, we've had Dwain Chambers but I honestly believe that if someone else of that stature from Britain is done for drugs before 2012, athletics won't recover.

"Fortunately our testing system is the best in the world and nothing is hidden any more. Openness is paramount. We have to make sure everyone knows who gets caught. Put the names out there in big letters. Scare them until they get the message: don't bloody do it."

Given the lack of achievement in British track and field of late, some might suggest it's not performance-enhancing drugs the athletes need but performance-enhancing polyurethane clobber of the new swimsuit kind. But on the eve of what is expected to be another less than auspicious World Athletics Championships she remains upbeat about the future of a sport that was lapped by others in Beijing, notably swimming, cycling and rowing.

"I know people doubt we can ever recapture those golden days of athletics but from working with my young runners I believe we do have the talent. I think there will be more finalists and personal bests in Berlin but it is vital these are converted into medals in 2012 because athletics is still the blue riband Olympic sport."

When London acquired the Games her leap of exhilaration matched that of her second golden moment in Athens "I was at the Olympic Park with Seb [Coe] last week and to see the stadium coming out of the ground really gives you a buzz. It made me proud to be British."

She smiles: "I'm getting older, you know [she is 39] but I'm still the same driven person I always was, relishing new challenges."

Kelly Holmes may not be the first dame of athletics – Mary Peters beat her to the Palace podium – but she has surely become the first lady of her sport. And the one certainty is the double golden girl will keep on running.

Life and times

Name: Dame Kelly Holmes.

Born: 19 April 1970, Pembury, Kent.

Show us your medals: 800m gold and 1500m gold, 2004 Olympics, Athens; 800m bronze, 2000 Olympics, Sydney. 1500m silver and 800m bronze, World Championships, Gothenburg 1995; 800m silver, Worlds, Paris 2003. 1500m silver, World Indoor Championships, Birmingham 2003. 1500m silver, European Championships, Helsinki 1994; 800m bronze, Euros, Munich 2002. 1500m gold, Commonwealth Games, Victoria 1994; 1500m gold, Comm, Manchester 2002; 1500m silver, Comm, Kuala Lumpur 1998.

Feel the force: Joined Women's Royal Army Corps as lorry driver aged 18. Transferred to the Physical Training Corp. British Army judo champion.

Honours: Awarded MBE in 1998 for services to British Army. Awarded damehood in 2005.

For details of Dame Kelly's charities and projects, visit doublegold.co.uk and dkhlegacytrust.org