Ideal Holmes is where the heart is

Norman Fox expects to see a soldier who set her sights high win today

IT WAS one of those situations in which Army training comes in useful. Sgt Kelly Holmes was cornered. It was not exactly life or death but at about three- quarter distance in a recent 800 metres race at Crystal Palace she seemed trapped in the middle ranks and in no position to win anything more than a commendation for effort.

She sidestepped, held back for a split second to see the best way through, accelerated and won in a time she called "disappointing" - only the fifth fastest in the world this year. She heads the sparse roll of the new generation of athletes who are waiting to replace Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson as role-models.

Not long ago that awkward situation at Crystal Palace would probably have beaten her. But this season she has fairly bubbled with confidence and spread a glow of fitness to put an SAS man in the shade. As a teenage junior international she was always promising, but the demands of army life combined with a doubt that athletics was the most interesting of the many sports in which she excelled, meant she took her time to develop into a potential Olympic medal winner. She could confirm that potential by becoming world champion in Gothenburg next month.

In spite of the injury that stops her running at the world championship trials in Birmingham today, Sally Gunnell remains indisputably Britain's top woman athlete. But if the captain's injuries fail to heal, the sergeant will be ready to set the example in Sweden. Holmes has already been assured of her place in the 1500m but could also compete in the 800m. However, the organisers of this weekend's meeting have been unable to re-arrange the programme in such a way that would let her run both distances.

What she says she is good at is not so much the running but the "suffering". Her qualification is seven years as physical training instructor who has never told anyone, male or female, to complete any test of strength or stamina she has not managed herself. She admits to an aggressive streak, cultivated in the Army, training and being trained by men. Dragging logs through woods in full combat gear and climbing walls higher than Kate Staples's best pole vault must yield some advantage when it comes to running on a flat track.

That sort of army life suited her, but it was too diverse for someone with serious athletic ambitions. Now 25, she has been involved in the sport on and off for 11 years, but only in the past 12 months has she really been able to think of herself on equal terms with the rest of the full-time athletes. "I really needed a medal to make up my mind about the future," she said. Winning the Commonwealth Games 1500 metres last summer and a silver in the European Championship was enough.

Until then the army life, which she says she loves, had taken priority, but it seemed as if there was no way in which she could progress through career examinations and remain true to her athletic ambitions. Fortunately a happy compromise was reached when a few months ago she began working with the Guards Army Youth Team.

Last year she was seriously considering leaving her job but she says the Army realised the good publicity she had been offering them. They found a position that allowed her more time to train and to compete, not to speak of promotion. In return she is now committed to another 18 months promoting the Army as a career. Everything seems to be working well: "I'd never done a full year's training before. Last year there was the Achilles problem but before that I was always involved in too may different sports."

She was more than just "involved". She was the Army judo champion and also represented them at volleyball while remaining the Army's "star" athlete. But Army athletics is far too easy for someone with eyes on Olympic gold. Last year she realised that she would have embarrassed the entry in the Army championship's women's 1500m so she went in with the men and finished sixth, breathlessly followed by several of the "ultra fit" Parachute Regiment. This season she ran the 800m and 3,000m, then a relay leg, and won them all - on the same day.

Having joined Tonbridge AC in Kent at the age of 14, by the time she signed up for the Army she seemed on the doorstep of a significant athletics career. She lost form simply because although the life kept her fit, she was fit only for the army life, not for big-time athletics. It was four years after she joined that she watched the 1992 Olympic Games. One of the competing athletes made her sit up and think "I used to beat her". Having maintained basic fitness, she quickly gained a place in the national athletics team and despite still training only four times a week she reached the 1993 world championship semi-finals. "That made me ask myself what I could do if I trained properly." Now she knows.

Her ability to suffer without faltering, let alone complaining, pulled her through last summer. She was constantly in pain from an Achilles injury and at times resorted to swimming in order to keep her weight off the injured leg. Her perseverance had a lot to do with the first person in the Army to encourage her to stop being a driver, which was her first job. Suffering from tendinitis, she was unable to run and so went to the gym in an effort to keep fit. The warrant officer in charge was Kriss Akabusi.

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