Dame Kelly Holmes: Heart of gold

After her triumphs of Olympics past, Dame Kelly Holmes is helping a new generation of athletes reach the top, she tells Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online

When Kelly Holmes retired in December 2005 it was fair to say she had ticked all the boxes. Olympic 800 and 1500 metres champion. BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Created a Dame by the Queen at the Palace. What had she missed?

After a career that had ricocheted between injury and achievement, misery and glory, she was finally free of the stresses that had outweighed anything she had experienced during a five-year stint in the Army. As she put it back then: "It's time to enjoy just being me." That enjoyment, she reckons, lasted about six months. After waking up each morning thinking: "Thank God for that. Pressure off my shoulders", she became aware of another thought crowding in on her: "I've got to think of something else to do."

Sitting in the welcome coolness of a hotel lobby bar, as passers-by make their way up and down the glaring length of Ludgate Hill in central London, the woman whose stupendous performances four years ago turned her into an iconic figure for the Athens Games stares thoughtfully down at her drink as she reflects upon the recent changes that have taken place in her life.

The drink she nurses is a large Bacardi and Coke. No, of course it's not. It's that old favourite: hot water with a slice of lemon. At the age of 38, the most famous inhabitant that Tonbridge, Kent, has ever had still sports the toned body of an athlete, though there is a touch of poise and glamour about her that she did not always have as a runner. Perhaps that's what "Dancing on Ice" can do for you.

That television venture was one of many Holmes made after relinquishing the career which she had pursued from the age of 12 until she joined the Army at 18, and again, as Sgt Holmes of the No 1 Household Division, from the ages of 23 to 35. But, in common with other top-class sporting performers, she has felt keenly the unsettling absence of a clear direction after a life of homing in on defined goals.

And as she watches, with a mixture of empathy and relief, her sometime colleagues readying themselves for the impending Olympic challenge in Beijing, she is involving herself in new projects that, she hopes, will benefit British sporting figures – and British sport itself – in the years leading up to the London Games in 2012 .

"What I've realised is that when you finish sport there's nothing for you," she says. 'There's no actual clear route forward, and you find it quite a big loss in your life. You've had this massive goal, you either achieve it or it's come to the end of the road, and suddenly you are just like, 'God, now what? Who am I now?' I've realised, speaking to people like Graham Thorpe about the suicide rate among ex-cricketers, that there have been a lot of sporting people that have kind of been lost."

To prevent that wastage, Holmes is in the process of setting up her own Legacy Trust, which will aim to identify such figures and integrate the skills they have learnt over a sporting lifetime into the current infrastructure. The youngsters now aiming for the London Games in 2012 could soon be benefiting from the talents of those who have striven before.

Even before she had retired, Holmes had already established a commitment to training a group of talented female middle-distance runners as part of a Norwich Union-sponsored scheme entitled On Camp with Kelly. A cast of athletes that has modified over the years has benefited from the insights and promptings of a woman who proved again and again in her time as an athlete that adversity was merely the signal for battle to begin. "All of those experiences I had, and the clawback from those experiences, gave me the knowledge that I could always come back from something," she says.

Having missed an Olympic 800m medal by a fraction of a second in 1996, when she had suffered a stress fracture during her preparations for the Games, she returned to the Olympic forum four years later similarly hampered by physical problems. Yet despite having been injured for six months of the year, she claimed an improbable bronze in the Sydney Games 800m which, she promptly declared, was "her gold medal". Some people might have read that as being a sign that she had settled for not achieving her ultimate ambition. Four years later in Athens she proved any such assumption to be seriously flawed as she became the first British athlete for 84 years to win two golds at the same Olympics.

Holmes' look of wide-eyed shock as she crossed the line in the 800m, apparently unable to take in the fact that she had become Olympic champion, is an image that has now taken its place in the history of Games alongside the beatific smile of Ann Packer as she won the same title for Britain in 1964.

As she sits now, registering on the consciousness of the notionally busy bar staff, she is, in her mind, back in Athens. "I remember everything about it," she says. "As soon as you arrive at an Olympics it's a really strange feeling. It's not the same as any other championships.

"I remember winning that first gold like it was yesterday. One, from the feeling I get, secondly because people come up to me saying what they were doing at the time – exactly. And I get played the tape of it so many times. I still get emotional every time I see it. Seeing my reaction brings the emotion because I remember how much it still means to me.

"Most people thought I had a chance of a medal in Athens, but no one thought I was going to get gold. Ten metres before the finish line in the 800m I remember saying to myself 'relax'. In training I'd always made sure that when I got to that point I started relaxing because in any final that I've been in at the Olympic Games it's always been that last bit where everyone was fighting – even in Atlanta I got pipped on the line for fourth, we were so close, all of us – and I thought to myself, 'You win and lose in the last 10 metres'.

"I remember being neck and neck with Maria Mutola, who was the defending champion and obviously a formidable athlete. When you are next to somebody like that you can easily be dictated to by the way they are, and you start getting tense. And I just remember when I said that word, 'relax', it was at that moment that I took that extra one step that put me ahead of her. Obviously the others came in close behind, but that was where I took the step that won me the race. I remember crossing the line first, but it was like, 'There's no way...'"

There is, it seems, not even a twinge of regret that she is not among the British athletes currently making their way to the holding camp in Macau to put the finishing touches to their Beijing ambition.

"Do I wish I was there?" she says. "The thought of going through all that again ... no, not at all." The obvious question - how will Britain do in track and field this time around? – elicits a considered response.

"You can't predict at the Olympics," she says. "Because you never know about the preparation of people, where they are psychologically, where they are physically. What they need, what they get right and wrong during the build-up phase.

"Right now we have people coming along looking quite good and quite fit, but that changes in the period from now to the Games. That period is critical. It can turn someone from a bronze medal winner into a gold medallist, or from a finalist to a medallist, or the other way round, from a medallist to someone who completely bums out."

So what are her predictions?

She smiles. "Ones you would have expectations of would be people like Phillips Idowu, Christine Ohuruogo, Nicola Sanders, Kelly Sotherton," she says. "And after her win the other day at Crystal Palace, you could add Marilyn Okoro. That could be the surprise medal, and I'm sure there will be some other surprises as well as some other injuries where people get disappointed, like Chris Tomlinson is now, and you think, 'Oh, what a shame.'"

The subject of Paula Radcliffe rears up at this point. Holmes is well qualified to comment as the world marathon record holder maintains her attempt at a comeback from a stress fracture of her thigh. "As an athlete you never know where your fine line is," Holmes says. "Because there's a fine line between being world-class and at the top of your game to being injured. There isn't anything that says where that fine line is because every year you are slightly different.

"Paula is an ultimate professional – more professional than I was. She wouldn't be going to Beijing if she didn't think she had a chance of doing pretty well. She'll be doing the full aqua-jogging thing, doing her rehab work 100 per cent, so she'll probably be as fit as she could be without having done as much running. And maybe that will be a good thing. Because she is the ultimate expert in terms of getting back from injuries."

This time around, Holmes has the luxury of observing the Olympic struggle rather than engaging in it. How Radcliffe would love to be in her position.

Details of the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust can be found on: www.dkhlegacytrust.org

Dame Kelly Holmes is a BT ambassador and BT is an official partner of London 2012. www.bt.com/betterworld

Nothing like a Dame: The highs and lows of an Olympic champion

*Dame Kelly Holmes

Born 19 April 1970, Kent

1982 Begins athletics career at Tonbridge Athletics Club.

1983 Wins the English Schools' Junior 1500 metres.

1993 Makes international debut; wins first grand prix race in Stockholm and the 800m at the AAAs.

1994 Breaks two-minute barrier for 800m in Oslo; wins silver at the European Championships in Helsinki, then gold at Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada.

1995 Bronze in the 800m and a silver in the 1500m in the World Championships in Gothenburg.

1996 Suffers stress fracture of left leg at Atlanta Olympics. Battles on and just misses out on bronze.

1997 Limps out of first heat of the 1500m with ruptured Achilles at World Championships in Greece.

1998 Wins silver at 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, despite a season plagued by injury.

2000 Yet again struck down in an Olympic year, this time by a virus. Manages to claim a bronze in the 800m in Sydney.

2001 Contracts glandular fever which severely hinders plans for World Championships in Edmonton – she manages sixth in 800m.

2002 Claims 1500m gold in Manchester at Commonwealth Games and bronze in European Championships; fails to qualify for 1500m final. She now begins to train with rival and friend Maria Mutola.

2003 Yet another injury hits her during preparations for a major championships, but she gets a silver in the 800m behind Mutola.

2004 Her annus mirabilis: despite a fall in the World Indoors final, she claims double gold in Athens in the 800m and 1500m.

2005 Misses out on World Championships with hamstring injury. Competes in 1,000m indoor at Birmingham and wins final UK race. Becomes a Dame in March and is present in Trafalgar Square at successful London 2012 bid in July. Retires in December, citing a lack of motivation for decision.

David Meller