The real Holmes truth
By Sarah Holt, BBC 28 August 2004
Patience finally paid off for Kelly Holmes when she claimed an historic Olympic double by winning gold in the 800m and 1500m in Athens.
“Cashew nuts are my little secret – Sally Gunnell’s given me a bag after my races”
The former army sergeant joined the ranks of the Olympic greats by adding the 1500m crown to the 800m title she won just six days earlier. Running with supreme confidence, she again stormed through the pack to claim gold after lying eighth out of 12 at the bell.
At 34, Holmes is two years older than British sprinter Linford Christie when he took the 100m title at the Barcelona Games. It would be easy to scoff and ask what took her so long. But to understand Holmes, you really need to ask just what stopped her giving up on her lifelong dream.
After all, despite a bright start – she won the English Schools 1500m crown in just her second season – her athletics career was almost prematurely snuffed out. Holmes turned her back on athletics at the age of 18, preferring to focus her physical aptitude on building a career in the army. First she operated heavy-duty trucks before re-training as a physical training instructor. Holmes’ athletics aspirations were all but buried until an army coach suggested she return to the sport.
“I wasn’t sure,” she admitted. “I was enjoying life being completely army barmy and didn’t want to start training full-time.”
But Holmes shrugged off her doubts, taking to the track again in 1992 with immediate success. She became national champion over 800m in 1993 and added the 1500m title one year later. So, Holmes recovered from one false-start but the real test of her mental strength came hand-in-hand with physical weakness. Her potential and desire to succeed has consistently been watered down by a string of ill-timed injuries.
A stress fracture saw her trail home in fourth place in the 800m at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Four years later in Sydney, she battled to bronze on the back of just six weeks’ intensive training after being laid low by a virus. And last time she was in Athens, at the 1997 World Championships, a ruptured Achilles tendon ended her 1500m hopes in the heats.
With typical grit, Holmes – the overwhelming favourite going into the event – dragged herself across the line, more than 200m behind her rivals. ”Every single year I’ve said ‘oh, if only I hadn’t had that injury I’d have done even better,’” Holmes admitted. But rather than become disillusioned by her injury-jinx, Holmes became determined to prove just what she could achieve once she had tamed her own body.
That desire to realise her potential led her to leave behind her roots in Kent and switch training bases to South Africa in 2002. There, Holmes drew inspiration from living and working with the world’s dominant 800m runner, Mozambique’s Maria Mutola, and her American coach Margo Jennings.
“Maria has so much experience, she has won so much that you cannot fail to become a better athlete by being with her,” Holmes said at the time. “I feel I am stronger than ever.” At the World Championships in Paris last year, Holmes took the 800m silver medal behind Mutola, in a tactically astute race by the duo. Not so in Athens, where a fully-fit Holmes ruthlessly put personal feelings aside to overhaul the defending Olympic champion.
“Kelly knows my weakness,” Mutola said after the race – a testament to Holmes’ competitive and tactical nous.
Determination and dedication have not come without sacrifice for Holmes. Speaking to her in the build-up to the Olympics, it was difficult to figure out just what makes her tick away from the track. The only thing she let slip in an easy-going half-hour conversation was that she supports Arsenal. Holmes has travelled a lonely path and rarely sees her family and friends – that might change.
She has no immediate plans to turn her back on the sport for good but after 12 years hunting gold, Holmes could find herself with nothing left to chase. Her mother did not see her grind her way to the 800m Olympic title in Athens because she is scared of flying. But after the race she summed up the bewildering sense of relief that could just signal the end of Holmes’ career:
“What do you say to someone who’s achieved everything they’ve ever wanted in their lifetime?”