Starting the last lap of the 1500m final in Athens, Kelly Holmes was in eighth. It looked like double glory was out of her grasp, but in moments she turned a career dogged by setbacks into a redemptive sporting fairytale.
How does it feel to win Olympic gold? It’s always a very complex tapestry of emotions, unique to each champion. Everyone, somehow, throws a different light on that moment of triumph, every bit as individual as their fingerprints on the medal.
Yet, among these moments, some strike a chord in our collective consciousness more than others. Some gold medals have an extra lustre, because sometimes we recognise a little more than usual about what went into earning them.
Ultimately, identifying with champions and the efforts they invest is all-important. Watching athletic perfection is enthralling, but watching the human spirit triumph over adversity in order to achieve that perfection is emotional. Without that emotion, sport is just facts and figures. And this story is about far more than that.
A life-changing race
On Friday August 20, 2004, Kelly Holmes walked on to the track in the Olympic stadium in Athens for the first round of the 800m. Outside of the British athletics fraternity, nobody really noticed.
Nobody went out of their way to find a television, pubs didn’t go quiet, dinner plans weren’t rearranged. Holmes was, so the public perception went, a nice woman. And when injuries subsided, a decent runner.
She’d won the Commonwealth Games, although nobody got too excited about that, and she had picked up medals at the World and European Championships. Most had at least some sense of her bad luck with injuries, and the view was that on the big stage, she was perhaps capable of winning one of the less shiny medals. A ‘nearly’ woman. Plucky. Gritty. Take your pick. Just not a winner.
That view barely scratched the surface of the real story; a tale of setbacks and personal demons that Holmes had battled with before toeing the start line in Athens, which had left her depressed and even briefly considering suicide just a year before. A story that makes her moment of double triumph even more incredible.
A competitive start
Kelly Holmes grew up in Hildenborough in Kent, the eldest of five children in a leafy Home Counties annex, and from her earliest days, it was clear that the competitive fires burned in her with rare ferocity.
“She was hugely determined to win from the very beginning,” says Dave Arnold, her very first coach at Tonbridge Athletic Club. “She was a nightmare if she lost, frankly.”
Holmes was a precocious talent at junior level, winning the English Schools 1500m title, but joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps at 18. She became an Army judo champion and when athletics meetings came around, ran against the men, successfully, mindful that women’s races offered little by way of competition for her.
Then, in 1992, as a serious athletics career appeared destined to take second place to service life, she had an epiphany. Watching Lisa York, who she had competed against at junior level, run in the Barcelona Olympics ignited a spark. If she can be an Olympian, reasoned Holmes, then so can I.
Four years later in Atlanta she achieved her aim, but a stress fracture curtailed her medal chances. In Sydney next time, she had to settle for bronze after injury once more wrecked her preparations. On the surface, she seemed to turn the setbacks into fuel for her competitive furnace, but the disappointments were taking a heavier toll than anyone suspected.
By 2003 she was being coached by Margo Jennings and altitude training in the Pyrenees with Mozambique’s Maria Mutola, who was both friend and rival. Cruelly, her Olympic injury issues returned, this time with far more serious ramifications.
If the physical damage to a calf was a concern, the mental trauma it caused was far more severe. “I thought I was cursed,” she said later. “It’s the lowest I’ve ever, ever been.”
As depression took hold she began to self-harm, cutting her chest and wrists in “a cry of despair”. “I even thought, briefly, just for a moment, about pressing the scissors harder into my wrists,” she later admitted. A year away from what was realistically her last chance of Olympic glory, Holmes was wrestling with far greater issues than are found on the track.
Finding an inner depth
Her salvation was her inner calm, her determination and a shift in attitude. For years Holmes had denied to herself the presence of injuries, until finally running became impossible. In those dark moments in the mountains, she took advice, stepped back and sought treatment. As her calf responded, so the depression receded, and the cutting ceased.
Step by step, discipline re-entered a life that had become uncharacteristically chaotic, as she learnt to put her faith in the medics. She endured mesotherapy – homeopathic anti-inflammatory injections – despite not thinking “for a moment that they would work”, upped her gym work, reduced her running sessions and spent hours immersed in ice baths.
When aches appeared, rather than convincing herself otherwise, she headed immediately to the physio. One day her calf was worked on for a straight eight hours. So, through training camps in Madrid, America and South Africa, Holmes pulled herself out of the abyss. And deep within herself, she found the faith to believe that this time would be different.
On the next page: Find out how Kelly took her first gold at the Athens Olympics.