Kelly Holmes: 'I know the next month will make or break the rest of my life'

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The Independent Online

Kelly Holmes is scared. Not physically; after all, she spent more than nine years in the army, mainly as a physical training instructor. Demands on that petite, sinewy, 34-year-old frame hold no terrors for a woman who valiantly overcame a terrible series of injuries to win an 800 metres bronze medal at the last Olympic Games. But she is deeply scared of what her future might hold, and the way in which that future is likely to be determined by her performances at the next Olympic Games, in Athens next month.

"I know this will be my last Olympics," she says. "And the closer it gets the more I think that it is going to make or break the rest of my life. When I was 30, I used to think a lot about what I was going to do afterwards. I wanted to do television, be a presenter, maybe do that Challenge Anneka stuff of jumping out of helicopters or whatever.

"But now I'm just focusing 100 per cent on the present, [knowing that] what I do now could open doors for me in the future. It's pretty scary. Because how I've done in my athletics career will decide how I feel about my life, and that career is coming towards the end without me having achieved everything I could have achieved. It's scary to think that I might not ever do it."

Holmes, to put it mildly, is not in a bullish frame of mind. Her press conference, at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham last week, was almost an exercise in gloomy negativism. Last Sunday, however, at the same venue, she won the Norwich Union International 800m in fine style, leaving the European champion, Jolanda Ceplak, of Slovenia, trailing by six metres.

On the other hand, Holmes is only ever one poor race away from a renewed bout of self-flagellation, and she has another 1500m next week in Zurich.

Oddly, it is the longer distance she intends to run in Athens, even though her form has been poor this season. With her good friend and training partner Maria Mutola, the Olympic 800m champion, struggling with a hamstring injury, not to mention her own good form in the two-lap event, it seems perverse that she is not talking about running both. She might yet do so, of course, but she is certainly playing hard to get.

Whatever, as one who rarely so much as runs for a train, I invite her to give me some insight into the different mindsets required for running the 800m and 1500m, at which she is Commonwealth champion.

"They're very different," she says. "Because the 800 is only two laps, there's less time to think about positioning. But because it's a faster pace, it can be more comfortable. You've got to be on top of your game, and know when to conserve a little bit of energy, because even to take a second off two minutes is very hard. The 800 can be won and lost in so many ways.

"In the women's race, the first lap is usually run fast and the second lap slow, but the last few that I've run, I've done it the other way round. Even with a slower first lap, though, it feels like a sprint right from the gun.

"The 1500 takes a lot more out of you, even though it's a slower pace. It takes more out of your legs, and the body goes through different physiological stages. You have much longer to decide what to do, but sometimes you have too long, and lose your focus.

"Tactically it's very different, too. You're generally in a bunch for a lot longer, and there are people making moves at different times. When you're always overtaking or being overtaken, that takes a lot out of you psychologically. You never know what the others are going to do.

"You can have a race plan, or even two or three race plans, based on what you think are the opposition's strengths and weaknesses, but then you might end up throwing the plan out of the window because someone you thought would hang back takes the race on. Instead of being a slow, tactical race, which I'm better at running, they take it by the scruff of the neck and sprint. And there can be no tactics then. You're just hanging on for dear life."

Holmes, reassuringly, refuses to concede that Mutola, the woman who finished two places better than her in Sydney and with whom she now shares a coach, has anything in her locker that she lacks herself.

"She's a 400m/800m runner, and I'm an 800m/1500m. So we're different in that way. It's been great training with her. It really kept my motivation up last year. Generally speaking, it's quite unusual to train with a female who's as good or better than you, because there's not enough depth. You generally train with the guys, but if they can run your kind of time, then they want to take it on further. So training with Maria has helped a lot.

"But if you look at our careers, I've had six or seven years of injury problems, and Maria hasn't really had any. If you're running and winning all the time it builds strength and confidence, which you keep taking into the next race, and the next one."

In some ways, her win in Birmingham last Sunday notwithstanding, Holmes has been passed the baton which used to be firmly held by Paula Radcliffe, and with it the reputation of British athletics' favourite plucky loser. Ten major championship medals is a great haul, but there is not enough gold for her liking, and she is running out of time to do a Ratcliffe by turning her reputation on its head.

Meanwhile, the one performance for which she seems destined to be remembered - unless she obliterates the memory by reaching the top of the podium in Athens - is that bronze medal in Sydney. To paraphrase Marshal Bosquet, it was magnificent, but it wasn't a gold. So for all the pride she rightly took in overcoming injury, is she ever nagged by the thought that she might have done better? "Well, I went from praying that I was going to reach the second round to running my second fastest time in the final. I was almost in shock about that. But yeah, when I had a chance to sit back and see the way I ran, and how strong I was, I thought I maybe could have done better.

"I was smiling 10m before the finish because I knew I was going to get bronze, when maybe I could have been fighting for silver because I was only just pipped on the line."

Holmes is nothing if not honest. Maybe too honest, in the way she shares her hopes and fears. A sports psychologist, I venture, would have a field day with her, and yet she adamantly refuses to engage one. I ask her why.

"Because I try to deal with myself. Because I feel that if I can sort things out for myself, then I'll come through it and be stronger. Maybe that's not the best way, but I really don't think that anyone else can change the way I feel, because they don't know how I feel. I get lots of support from friends and family, who know how down I get, but they don't know exactly how I feel either. All I need to do is win, and then my self-belief will come storming back and I will feel that nothing can stop me."

Up to a point. Thrilled as Holmes was that she won in Birmingham, serious doubts still remained about the 1500m. Yet the sometimes precipitous drops in self-confidence that have dogged this engaging yet enigmatic woman have never stopped her working feverishly to achieve her aims. Where such determination comes from, she does not know.

"And my mum says she can't understand where I got it from either. It's just inside me. Nobody else in the family has the drive and the passion that I have, and I've had it since I was 12, when I found athletics. Since then I've been so determined to be the best I can be."

The psychologist that Holmes will not let anywhere near her would probably conclude that the determination to prove herself, comes from being not only the only mixed-race girl among her group of friends, growing up in the overwhelmingly white environment that was mid-Kent in the 1970s, but also the only mixed-race member of her family.

Yet when I bring up the subject of race, in connection not only with her upbringing but also with South Africa, where since 1995 she has trained for much of the year, she insists that she has scarcely even been aware of it.

"I never lived with my dad [who was black]. I grew up with my mum, my brothers, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and they were all white. Race was never an issue in my life, and racism never existed for me personally. I know it's a big problem all over the world. But I never had to deal with it, not in school, or even in the army, where there is supposed to be lots of racism. That's maybe partly to do with my personality. I've always seemed pretty sure of myself.

"As for South Africa, I've never had a problem there either. And in any case I think the problems there are more to do with class, more to do with rich and poor. The white people are richer, the black people are poorer. With me being British, and also giving my money to white people, they have been happy with me being there.

"When I first went, I did wonder whether it might be an issue. I stayed at a lovely B&B, and the white guy who owned it talked to his black workers as if they were lower beings. But he was always fine with me.

"Mind you, I have laughed with my mum about the beaches over there, because they used to be separated into beaches for whites, beaches for blacks, and beaches for what they call coloureds. I used to say to my mum: 'If we'd all gone to the beach together, as a family, what would have happened to me?'"

Far more pertinently, what will happen to her now? If medals were dished out for lack of self-confidence and bleak introspection then she would have been well-placed for gold in this interview, but a week is a long time in athletics. Things are looking up. Also, she was struggling last week with a calf problem, just as she had a calf problem before the Sydney Games.

Perhaps history will repeat itself, and she will cast aside her injuries to run a blinder in Athens.

"Yeah, but every year's different," she says. "In 1997, I got to the World Championships having run five seconds faster than anyone in the world that year, and a week beforehand I got a nick in my Achilles. In 1996, it was only when I was flying out to the camp in Tallahassee [before the Atlanta Olympics] that I found I had a stress fracture, even though I felt perfectly fit. I don't like bringing all that up, because it gets tedious, especially for me.

"But this is the vulnerable stage. I can't help being tense. Because it's my last Olympics I just want to run really, really well."