Kelly Holmes

From athletics to the army and back again Dame Kelly Holmes has had a varied and triumphant career and is now at the forefront of supporting a new generation of Olympians. She reveals to Fiona Shield what it was that drove her to the top of the Olympic podium after a career plagued by injury

When did you realise that you had a talent for athletics?
At a very young age my PE teacher at school, Debbie Paige, convinced me to do a cross-country race in the wet, wind, rain and cold. I came second but it made me feel like next time I wanted to win so she encouraged me to go to an athletics club, and because I suppose I was naturally gifted at running I enjoyed it, it felt easy.

Did you have big ambitions from the start?
Yes, since I was 14. I watched Sebastian Coe win a gold medal in the Olympic Games in 1984 and thought ‘that’s it, that’s what I’ve got to do’ and that was in my head forever. I think there’s an element that’s embedded in you as a person, that you can’t really describe to people. You can obviously teach people skills and they develop – some are naturally talented, some have to work a bit harder – but I think that determination and confidence is sometimes harder to teach. I’ve always had a competitive edge to me.

Were your friends and family supportive?
Always, right from the start. My mum was the one that took me down to the athletics club after my teacher called her, though the first thing she said to me was, “You had better stick at this one!” I’d been to so many different clubs by then, and she thought it was going to be another whim – spend on trainers and not get past a week type of thing, little did she know! Their support was really important through my junior career and even more so through my senior career because they’re the ones that see the emotional side of the journey that you’re taking and the ones that try and keep you focused on it all the time.

You had considerable athletic success at a young age, what made you decide to join the Army?
I’d always wanted a career and to do something different, then when I was at school we had careers advisors visiting and they showed a video of the Army. There was a soldier screaming and shouting at other soldiers, doing an assault course, slinging through mud and jumping over walls, and I knew that was all I ever wanted. So I applied every year until I was finally old enough to be allowed to do the test. I wanted to be a physical training instructor but there was no intake so I ended up joining the HGV drive.

Do you think the discipline you learnt in those years helped with your athletics training in the future?
The whole ethos of the Forces – the discipline and learning to fend for yourself – is the same as in athletics; you have to be confident and committed to your training. Being in the Army made me grow up a lot as well, aged 21 I was in charge of a lot of people in my unit, and had to do the planning, preparation and goal-setting, which is what you have to do in athletics.

What prompted you to return to athletics?
I still had the ambition to be an Olympic champion but at that time I was in my late teens, early twenties, when I just wanted to be having fun. I was still competing in the Army, but didn’t do a lot of training. Then when I was posted in Yorkshire a guy called Wes Duncan, who had seen me running when I was a junior, saw me do an army cross-country race and managed to persuade me to get back into athletics in the winter of 1992. By the summer of 1993 I had been selected for the World Championships and it went on from there.
For the next few years I was balancing training with my army life, which was a challenge. I would take leave to go away and compete, and come back full of adrenalin from an amazing event then be brought back down to earth standing guarding the barracks at 2am in the fog. I learnt to adapt, but because I’m very much a person that gives 100% to everything I do, when I started getting bad injuries in 1997 and knew it would affect my job as a physical training instructor I had to make the decision to leave the army and focus on athletics. From then on athletics became my life.

Did you follow a strict food plan throughout your career?
To be a successful sports person you have to see the food you put in your body as fuel, so I would look at the amount of energy and endurance that I needed for the sessions that I was doing and eat accordingly. I’ve always had a really sweet tooth so I had to minimise my chocolate intake to just treats, but I always had a Chinese takeaway once a week. The worst thing is to ignore cravings, because it doesn’t last long and then you just eat more. If I raced well then I would eat what I wanted afterwards as a luxury then go back to my usual food regime the next day.

You’re most well known for your double gold in Athens, but you’d already had Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth success by then, what made you push for an Olympic Gold medal?
It was a dream. The fact I had been very successful in other European tours and World Championships even off the back of really bad injuries gave me the confidence and belief that I was capable of racing and beating the best in the world. I just had to get it right on the day.

You came fourth at the 1996 Olympic Games, and won a bronze in Sydney in 2000 – both incredible achievements, but did you feel at all frustrated because you’d always dreamt of gold?
When I came fourth at the 1996 games and got pipped to the line I definitely did – I couldn’t help but think, ‘if only I’d had the last week and a half to train’. Then in 2000 I only had six weeks to run because of injury and didn’t even think I’d be at those Games, so in my head getting a bronze was like a gold medal. I was 30 and I thought that might be my last Games, I didn’t think I’d be as good or even better by the age of 34, but you live on hope.

Did you ever feel the weight of expectation either from the media or people around you, or was it just yourself putting the pressure on?
Predominantly it was myself, you have your own expectations and that’s why you kick yourself if you fall badly, and I wanted my family to see my achievements as well. Of course there was pressure from the media because when you’ve been a successful sportsperson they then assume that you’re always going to do well, but I was always known for getting a medal. No-one thought I’d ever get gold because I they assumed I’d get injured, so I thought ‘one day I’ll prove to you!’

Did you ever consider giving up?
I don’t think I would ever have totally given up, though there were times when I was tired of getting so close and being knocked back down again. I do think if you have a strong enough belief then you keep fighting for it though, and it’s only momentarily that you think ‘why am I putting myself through this’. In your heart you know you do it because you want to, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating at times.

It must have been an emotional rollercoaster, how did you keep your self-belief?
Yes, it was. No one ever sees behind the scenes, others just see whether it’s a good or bad performance. They don’t see the hours, minutes, seconds of effort that you’ve put into training, it’s ridiculous the lifestyle you lead. Then there’s the emotional side – particularly with an Olympic sport like athletics, which is quite lonely – they don’t see any of that. You’re at a level where you become one of the best in the world and it’s hard to get there and even harder to stay, but you just have to hold on to what you really believe you can achieve.

Your feelings about winning the 800m event at the Olympic Games in Athens were clearly visible on your face when you crossed the line, how did you feel inside?
It’s hard to describe because it meant so much. My face was a cross between shock, because I didn’t believe I could get a medal, and the overwhelming realisation that I’d become an Olympic champion. I was just in disbelief and was still disbelieving when I came back the next day to do the 1500m. I slept with the medal on my pillow, I thought I was going to wake up from a dream and I’d be standing on the start line!

What made you decide to run the 1500m as well?
Since I was 14 it was always the 1500m that I believed I could be an Olympic champion in, and I made the decision to run both the day before I flew in from our holding camp in Cyprus to Athens. It was a big risk because I would have to do six races within nine days, but I was in the shape of my life. I actually can say that if I hadn’t won the 800m I don’t think I would have won the 1500m because I would have put too much pressure on myself.

How did your life change after winning?
It was bizarre, I was already known in the sporting world but to come back from Athens and have everyone know your name and people screaming out of their windows at you was crazy. When you’re at the Olympics you don’t know what the country thinks of your achievements because you’re in a bubble. I came home and mum had 50 newspapers with me in, it was a lot to take in. The biggest thing I’ll remember is my homecoming parade in my home town; it was just the most amazing day, there were 80,000 people lined up on the streets.

What made you decide to retire?
For two reasons; I got badly injured again in 2005 – I was really struggling with my Achilles tendon and I thought ‘why am I putting myself through this again?’ and the other reason was the tragic loss of an acquaintance. I was having lunch with him one day and he told me that he’d fallen over playing tennis. Then I got a call three days later saying he had a brain tumour and was going to die within three weeks. It was a shock, just days before I’d been sitting with a guy full of energy who was going to do some work with me, and then he was told he had just three weeks to live just from falling over. That made me realise life was too short, and I needed to make the most of it.

What were the first days after retiring like?
Initially I felt relieved to finish, I didn’t do anything for six months and just ate every takeaway and piece of cake I could manage. Then I realised how weird it felt, I’d gone through a long career and prior to winning my gold I’d never once thought about retiring.

What was the greatest challenge of your career?
Remaining focused and keeping the self-belief alive during the physical and emotional challenges that you have to go through to try and be the best. It’s very easy to say no or stop at the first hurdle, especially after getting so many injuries, but I had to pick myself back up again.

You’ve thrown yourself into charity work since retiring and become a leading ambassador for sport, are you enjoying that position?
The fact I won a double gold has also allowed me to voice my opinions and open doors to things I’m really passionate about because suddenly people were listening. Had I got two silver medals I would never have had that platform. I’ve got my own charity now, the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, and I really enjoy the different roles I have now. I stand for anybody who wants to try and achieve their best in life, no matter where they come from or what they do. If I can inspire or encourage anyone then that’s great.

What was it like being made a Dame by the queen?
I’d got a MBE for my services to the British Army in 1998, but I’d never got an accolade like that through sport. And I’ve always been really patriotic, so to be recognised by the monarchy with the highest accolade for a female was so special. I’d never even dreamt of such recognition. Then I got Sports Personality of the Year, voted by the public, which was incredible as well.

Last month you were named President of the Commonwealth Games England, what plans do you have for your new role?
The Commonwealth Games have tried to modernise their whole look and appeal, and my role is hopefully going to help with the profile of that. I hope to be able to help shape the way forward for British sports, and try and get the public behind the Commonwealth Games and the England team in particular.

Do you think there should be more patriotism in this country?
Definitely. When World Cup football comes on, what do you see? Flags everywhere. Why can’t we get behind the Commonwealth team and do that, and be proud? We hide away from celebrating being British too much.

How do you think the country will respond to hosting the Olympic Games?
Well, we know how to party don’t we? It’s the biggest sporting event in the world and it’s our platform to show what we can do inside and outside the arenas. The Olympics is about talent and showing the best of Britain, so when the Games come we can show what we do best. I can’t wait!

There has been much criticism about the cost of hosting the Games, what’s your opinion on the situation?
It was always going to cost a lot and when you submit an initial bid and budget you’re going on previous Games, but actually you want to make it even more successful. There are so many areas involved that the budget is inevitably going to go up. London is going to be completely regenerated; businesses, housing, infrastructure, so many changes that are going to benefit a huge part of the country. Young people will benefit as well and I think it’s a really positive thing. Yes it’s a lot of money, but when it comes around people will think it’s worth it.

What inspired you to set up ‘On Camp with Kelly’?
Even before I’d won my medals in 2004 I wanted to pass my knowledge on to other youngsters that were coming through the sport to prepare them for what was to come. But my real inspiration for the camp was because when I was younger I was part of a big group of athletes who used to run – some of whom were better than me at that age – but they all gave up to go straight into work and have families. I always thought it was such a waste of talent, and it made me think about how I could help maintain the retention in athletics. So far it’s been a really good educational mentoring programme and I’ve been able to help lots of young athletes.

What advice would you give anyone looking to get involved in professional sports?
Joining a club is the first thing, then coaches can give you guidance on the sport and training, and how you can get better. You can only become an Olympic athlete by being a club athlete first. No one can just say ‘I’m going to go and be an Olympic athlete’, it’s a long journey, and you have to really want to do it. Parents should give children a kick to try all sports, because then they will find something that they are naturally good at and will stick at because they enjoy it. You never know what’s going to happen when they find something they really love.

Do you think the Government does enough to encourage children in sport or do you think they could do more?
They’re doing a lot now, in my role as National School Sports Champion I influenced the Government to give £100m to school sports when Gordon Brown first became Prime Minister, so investment has never been as much as now, but there’s always more that can be done. Sport can give young people confidence, self-esteem and teamwork, which are things you need in your life anyway.

What characteristics do you think took you to the top of athletics?
Being stubborn, absolutely dedicated, committed and having a huge amount of self-belief.

Is there anything you wish you’d known before you became a professional sportsperson?
All the things I now teach my Camp with Kelly athletes because it might have saved me a lot of injuries, heartache and I might of got to the top a bit quicker. But I would never turn back the clock on what I’ve done, because it’s made me who I am.

As an athlete you’re always at the mercy of injuries, do you think that’s the hardest thing about the profession?
It plays a massive part in how you feel, because you work so hard to get yourself to the peak of fitness or development in your sport, and the only things that can let you down are either your head or your body. For most people their head lets them down because they stop being themselves, or they doubt themselves, but with me it was my body. There’s a fine line between being at your absolute peak of fitness and crossing over into injury and it’s really hard to deal with, especially as the line constantly moves. It’s all about management; you have to learn how your body reacts.

How do you keep healthy these days?
I still do a little bit of running, not every day or anything but just to keep ticking over, and I do rock climbing quite a lot now. One of my ambitions is to have my own outward bounds centre, even if it’s only on a small scale, but I want to get some credibility in that field first because if I’m into something then I like doing it properly. 




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