A golden double that proves there's no pace like Holmes

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The Independent Online

The 1500 metres event at these Games presented a curious challenge to its ultimate victor, Kelly Holmes; namely, pretending not to be the only thing she has ever wanted to become - Olympic champion.

The 1500 metres event at these Games presented a curious challenge to its ultimate victor, Kelly Holmes; namely, pretending not to be the only thing she has ever wanted to become - Olympic champion.

That the 34-year-old Kent athlete managed to put the tumultuous experience of winning the 800m on hold while she concentrated on her extraordinary challenge of winning the double here says everything about a mental strength which has been belatedly granted her like an Olympic gift.

Ever since she arrived on the international scene 11 years ago, Holmes has been a paradox. She is immensely durable; yet she is immensely vulnerable.

Over the years her effectiveness has been brutally checked by injury - a stress fracture at the 1996 Olympics, an Achilles tendon rupture just as she seemed ready to claim the 1997 world title on the same track where she triumphed again on Saturday night.

Yet she has always shown extraordinary resilience in the face of outrageous fortune which Lottery-funded medical support has helped to reduce to a minimum over the last two seasons, a major factor in her Athens success.

What has assailed Holmes more keenly, however, even to the brink of these Games, is uncertainty. Such is her propensity for doubt that even good news can be seen as bad news.

"Leading up to the Olympics, it was the first time for so long where I haven't been injured," she said. "So I was focusing on what I wanted to achieve from my races instead of thinking, 'See how it goes, see if I'm over my injury problems, whatever comes will be great'. I was in the mindset that, 'Well, I'm not injured, so obviously I've got to expect more from myself'." '

Asked yesterday if she expected anything to go wrong during the six rounds of racing she required here to register her historic achievement, she replied, as you somehow knew she would: "All the time."

But these are the Games where, for the first time, nothing went wrong for Kelly Holmes. After fretting all year about whether to do the 800m here, or the 1500m, or both, she revealed yesterday that she had been able to arrive in Athens in an ideal state of mind after reaching a decision after a key training session at the venue she laughingly calls Alcatraz - the British pre-Games holding camp at Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus.

Three days before the opening heats of the 800m here, she ran two 400m time trials with a 10 minute recovery period which persuaded her to risk all in the Olympic stadium. She broke her personal best both times, recording 53.7sec and 53.1.

"I remember in Sydney when everything leading up to that had gone wrong, I did one track session that made me think 'Now I'm ready'. And I didn't have that feeling all the way until then, even though I was training really hard. But then I did this one session and that made me think 'Yeah, I'm ready, and I will have to go in the 800 because I will regret not doing it if something goes wrong in the 1500'."

The seeds of her Olympic accomplishment were sown, and the judgement was confirmed by her former coach Dave Arnold, back in her native Kent, whom she had been texting with progress reports.

"It was that confidence which gave me that edge to go through the rounds," she said. "In the 1500m semi-final I felt so comfortable it was unreal so I felt then I had a real big chance in the final. But I didn't envisage winning it when I saw the people in the line-up. It was probably one of the best line-ups there have been in the world for years."

Although Arnold had been privy to her thoughts in the final week of preparation, tellingly, Holmes did not report the details to the woman who has coached her since November 2002, Margo Jennings. The American had accepted Holmes as a training partner for the woman whose career she had guided since 1990, Maria Mutola, on the understanding that the Briton would be working towards the 1500m rather than the two-lap event, at which Mutola has won one Olympic and five world titles.

"I didn't even tell Margo about what I'd done because once I'd made my mind up we were obviously in two different camps and I was clearly a rival to Maria. It was very hard for my coach to split her loyalties, and I understood that because she's been with Maria for 14 years."

A compact which has existed for two years is broken. At last year's world championships, although Holmes also ran the 800m in competition with Mutola, there were suggestions that the two had supported each other at a crucial stage of the race before the Mozambique athlete accelerated away from her training partner and took gold to her silver.

Suggestions of any shared tactical discussions for Athens were dismissed by Holmes, who maintained that she and Mutola had not trained together for five months.

The body language after the 800m final suggested that that state of affairs may continue for some time to come. Mutola spoke ruefully about Holmes having been able to capitalise on her weaknesses.

The parallel suggested itself of Colin Jackson and Mark McKoy, the man who joined him as a junior training partner in the preparation for the 1992 Olympics and then went on to claim the 110m hurdles gold.

Jackson was never critical of McKoy, offering him the most gracious of congratulations in the wake of a defeat that came as a body blow after a year in which he had clearly established himself as the world's best high hurdler. But when McKoy arrived back first to the house they shared in Wales and put his gold medal on the television, even Jackson's bonhomie must have been strained.

There will be no such gestures from Holmes. But it seems that finally, towards the end of a career which has so often brought her tantalisingly close to her heart's desire, Holmes has been able to pursue her ambition ruthlessly. With her "dream" realised, she seemed suddenly free.