Out of the shadows
Despite the almost cinematic backstory, Holmes did not start her 2004 Olympic campaign under either the full glare of a nation’s attention, or the weight of its expectations.
Not only was she seen as the perennial nearly woman, but the British thirst for gold medals was being sated. As she walked to the start line for the 800m heats Sir Chris Hoy, then pre-knighthood, was storming to gold in the velodrome. The following day, her progress through the semi-final was neatly overshadowed by ‘Golden Saturday’, when the British national anthem rang out no less than five times.
Even by the time she’d progressed quietly to the 800m final, on Monday evening, August 23, the informed athletics-watching community were struggling to see beyond the injury troubles and the strength of the opposition. Pressed to tip Holmes for glory before the final, Sally Gunnell dared only go so far as to say, “There’s no reason why she can’t get a medal in both events.” Experts feared that she was preparing to reach out to a place beyond her grasp.
Starting from lane three, the early stages of the race slipped away from her. By 200m, Holmes was 15m off the lead in last, and the margin was little different at the bell, reached in a searing 56:37. In such company, the fear was that Holmes had misjudged her run at the crucial moment – this field would refuse to come back to her.
At 300m from home, however, the gap began to reduce, as Holmes accelerated and the pace at the front wavered. But Maria Mutola was still there. The reigning Olympic champion went into the race with three World titles at 800m, six Indoor titles and two Commonwealth. And Holmes had given her what amounted to a headstart. The task seemed impossible.
But as the race hit the final bend she was up to fourth and, as if all loans on the ferocious early pace were being called in, the field was compressing like a concertina. About 80m from home, the fast finishers reached the fast starters. Holmes moved to Mutola’s shoulder, but the champion held firm, challenging Holmes to bridge the gap.
Then came the moment Kelly Holmes had perhaps only allowed herself to imagine on those very hardest of training runs, or last thing at night, before she surrendered to her dreams. Her form remained perfect: head still, arms driving, eyes fixed. Inch by inch the margin shrank until, 10m from the line, a final surge saw the old champion replaced by a new one.
It was a remarkable race. The three on the podium had been at the back with 300m to go. It was a final about belief, bravery and judgement, and Holmes had come through on all three counts, winning in 1:56.38, by just five-hundredths of a second. Buried deep in the years of effort she had forced herself through, fuelled by disappointment and upset, she had put in the work that made her a blink of an eye stronger than Mutola. Somewhere, was the session that had made her a champion.
Realisation seemed to come to her several seconds later than it did to those watching from
the comfort of their armchairs.
“You’ve won it Kelly! You’ve won it!” yelled Steve Cram from the BBC commentary box. And for a few voyeuristic seconds, we watched as she stared up for confirmation from the stadium scoreboard. As personal as it was, nobody could resist scanning her face for that moment of realisation. After a delay of seconds, which probably seemed like hours to her, the white bulbs formed themselves into the message she had always dreamed of reading.
Flying the flag for British women
Not formed by the bulbs, but surely illuminated in her mind, were the facts that she had become the first British woman to win a medal on the track since Sally Gunnell in 1992, and first to win 800m gold since Ann Packer in 1964. Her face erupted, a mixture of euphoria and disbelief, her own complex emotional tapestry broadcast around the world.
Her hands flew skywards and she needed to move, to celebrate, while still seemingly terrified of moving her eyes from the scoreboard, as if fearful it might somehow change. It was that most personal of moments, where a lifetime’s heartbreak and effort reap the most extraordinary dividend. One of those moments only sport can provide.
But that was only Act One. Triumph equated to personal redemption for Holmes, who deep down had known she possessed the talent to win gold, yet had seen chance and circumstance defeat her time after time. In that instant, she repaid the faith she had in herself, validating the years of effort.
It was the moment that should have seen her emphatically ditch the nearly woman tag – she’d won only the seventh Olympic gold ever to go to a female British track and field athlete – but already the public wanted an eighth. The pressure was on.
Among Holmes’s most valuable defences, in the eyes of those who know her best, was the ability to isolate her thoughts, to be disciplined in her preparation. It came from something deep within which, no doubt, had been honed in the Army and had helped her through all those disappointments.
For the next five days, that single-mindedness would have to cope with the pressure and the possibility of success beyond anything she may have imagined. “The hardest thing,” she said later, “was focusing on the race and pretending that I hadn’t already won one.”
To a degree, the schedule helped her, allowing no time to dwell. The first round of the 1500m was the following evening, and less than 24 hours after winning one gold she was actively engaged in pursuit of another. If anyone feared her concentration might have been impaired, the concerns were soothed over the next two rounds, as Holmes guided herself to the final with the relaxed precision of a middle distance runner at the very peak of her powers.
Both heat and semi-final were the fastest of that round, and she ghosted through each on the shoulder of the winner, in complete control.
If the 800m final had belatedly captured public attention, the timing of the 1500m, taking place early on Saturday evening, was a scheduler’s dream. Making her way to the start it was as well that the opinions and well-meant wishes of the commentators were beyond her hearing. Holmes was facing her “moment of truth” and “chasing history”. “Can she do it again?” they asked.
On the next page: Discover how Holmes secured her second glorious victory and made history.