Sports Personality of the Year: Holmes trips the limelight fantastic

For one year, she was in the shape of her life. Nick Townsend salutes tonight's TV heroine

Before, she had been just a familiar face in the chorus line of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year* awards, as the studio lights picked out the new millennium victors - Sir Steve Redgrave, David Beckham, Paula Radcliffe and Jonny Wilkinson - and others down the years.

Before, she had been just a familiar face in the chorus line of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year* awards, as the studio lights picked out the new millennium victors - Sir Steve Redgrave, David Beckham, Paula Radcliffe and Jonny Wilkinson - and others down the years.

Until Athens, Kelly Holmes never dared to imagine a summer in which she would transcend all expectation, her own included, a summer which could propel her to the forefront of public affection. But then, as the double Athens gold medallist concedes: "I achieved what I did because, for one year, my body stayed in perfect shape."

It has been a year so fantastic that it could almost be used as the storyline of a Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, one which began with uncertainty but ended with Lord Coe kneeling before her and untying her running-shoe laces before presenting her with that first of two Olympic gold medals.

"Eight or nine awards" have come her way so far, and, while only complacency on the part of her supporters appears likely to deny Holmes what she regards as "the pinnacle" of sporting honours in tonight's so-called "people's poll", the team award appears to be as close as some of the finishes involving two of the five contenders.

Arsenal, Premiership champions by 11 points and undefeated in a sequence which ultimately stretched to 49 games, and the European Ryder Cup team may have prevailed with something in hand, but the margin of victory recorded by both the Great Britain men's 4 x 100m relay team and the crew of the coxless four were, in context, minuscule. Though England's cricketers are the other contenders, such a distinction might be a year too early. An Ashes triumph would place them in prime position in 12 months' time.

For the first time, the public will be able to vote for that award during the programme, when there will also be presentations to Overseas Personality, Coach of the Year, Young Sports Personality of the Year, Unsung Hero, the Helen Rollason award and a Lifetime Achievement award.

Yet it is the individual trophy that, annually, is the most coveted and the most emotionally charged component of the programme, and which will attract not much fewer than two million votes. "I've been a couple of times [to the awards]," says Holmes. "In 2000 I was part of the Olympic squad who got the team award. It was amazing to be there in among so many fantastic sportspeople, but I never dreamt I would ever win it. Just to be in the running is brilliant. It's down to the public, and my only worry is that because everybody expects me to win it they won't vote."

One of her principal rivals for the trophy, the four-time Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent, has, at a similar age, recently retired from his sport. Holmes has no immediate desire to do so. "I can't just go from being an Olympic champion to an ex-athlete," Holmes says, although she does issue the caveat: "I'm not invincible. While I was in Athens, I was having physio constantly, and that's the reason I came out and performed like I did. The only thing that would stop me now is my head and whether my body stays in one piece."

Images of that eye-bulging elation at her success immediately after the 800 metres will remain long in our consciousness. "When I crossed the line I knew that I had won," she explains. "I was well aware I was in front. But my initial thought was, 'I couldn't have won the 800 metres' [her "lesser" event]. That was why I had a look of disbelief and shock. When I was standing there I was thinking, 'I'm celebrating but I couldn't really have won it'."

She adds: "I'd been used to everything going wrong for me in the past. There had always been something stopping me getting that gold medal. So when I won it I had to look at the screen just to make sure. I was thinking, 'Did I? Did I?' "

Holmes's immediate plans extend no further than the indoor circuit. "I can probably see myself running two or three races," she says. "But I won't make my mind up about the Europeans [indoor championships] until further on, because I don't know how I'm going to come out after my training. When I get on the track, I want to be running half-decently, and I don't want to be coming fifth or sixth. If I do decide to go to the European Championships I have to believe that I'd be going there capable of doing something good."

She has conceded previously that the intense hunger for major championships may have been sated by Athens. Does that not suggest it may be an appropriate moment for a career change? "The thing is, I know I can still run. I know I still can do it, so why not?" she insists. "Plus, it's going to give me the chance to enjoy my year's athletics, because it hasn't always been enjoyable with all the injuries and the bad luck I've had. Now that I've got more than I ever wanted, I just want to enjoy myself and make up my mind what I want to do as the season goes on."

Which appears an eminently sensible proposal from the woman whose belated emergence to centre stage has entranced a sporting nation.

¿ BBC Sports Personality of the Year, BBC1, 8.0-10.15pm

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