The 2004 Olympic Games produced one of the most incredible individual sporting achievements I have ever witnessed: Kelly Holmes’ double gold.
It is already remarkable enough that Holmes became the first Briton to achieve the Olympic middle-distance double since Albert Hill in 1920 and only the third woman anywhere in the world ever to do it. But the thing that makes her triumph truly extraordinary is the fact that it came at the end of a career that was almost completely ruined by injuries.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2008, Holmes spoke about her many disappointments:
“The greatest goal if you’re an athlete is always the Olympics. I went to the 1996 Games in Atlanta in great form. During training, I suffered a stress fracture. It was madness that I carried on and ran the 800 metres and 1,500m, but because it’s the Olympics, you run through the pain. You never know if you’ll have another chance at the Olympics so, unless you can’t actually walk, you carry on, because you don’t want to be asking yourself, ‘What if?’ It’s amazing that I finished fourth in the 800m (missing bronze by a tenth of a second) that year. I spent weeks after with a leg in plaster.”
“It was a similar story a year later. I went to the world championships in Athens as one of the favourites then ruptured a tendon during the heats for the 1,500m.”
“What you have to remember about any athlete who gets injured is that there is a financial dimension. Of course, we run because we love it and for the honour, but, apart from lottery money, we don’t get paid irrespective of whether we are fit or not – unlike, for example, a footballer. I had quit my job in the army in 1997 so my main source of income was going to be running in athletics grand prix events. If you can’t do that, then you can’t earn money.”
Holmes struggled with injuries throughout her career. Her coaches often found it hard to work with such a physically fragile athlete, while Kelly herself found it hard to handle mentally.
“All sportspeople know they will struggle with injury. But I did seem to suffer more than others. There are only so many times you can get knocked down. You get to the situation where you almost don’t want to commit fully to training and competition because you won’t be able to bear the disappointment and frustration if you break down again.”
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Holmes revealed to changeboard.com in 2017 that her injuries eventually affected her so much she started to self-harm as a coping mechanism.
“Injuries became the story of my life,” she said. “I’d get a medal but it wasn’t the colour I wanted and I had to be satisfied that I simply got a medal. Other times, I was supposed to be the favourite going into a Championship and then I’d get struck down with an injury. A ruptured calf here, a torn Achilles there – what happens to the athlete then?”
“The athlete goes to the physiotherapist or the doctor; they treat what they see: the Achilles problem, the ruptured calf, the leg strain. They treat that.”
“What no one once asked me was how did I feel? How were my injuries making me feel? One minute I was on a high and the next minute I was so low. I never recognised that the feelings I had were putting me further and further down. I just cried because I wasn’t the best I could be.”
“I cried because I was in pain. I didn’t know that I was crying. I was devastated that some feelings within me that I never knew I had were destroying me.”
The situation came to a head in 2003, when Holmes was 33 and running out of opportunities to achieve the kind of success she craved.
“I had the worst year of my life. It was a year before the Olympic Games that I knew would be my last. I had got a bronze four years earlier in Sydney fighting back from injury with only six weeks of running, but this time, I knew this was the end.”
“I was injured again. I was going into the World Championship and I kept having this emotional trauma, thinking ‘I’ve got one more year, it’s all going wrong!’ I was an army sergeant with ten years in the military and I was an international athlete. Everyone thought I was tough and hard but I began to realise I wasn’t the superhuman person everyone thought I was.”
“Something in my mind clicked and I couldn’t cope any longer. I went into the toilet, I looked into the mirror and I hated myself. I saw some scissors on the side and I started cutting. Cutting for every day I was injured.”
“I was broken. I did not want to be here because I could not cope with the disappointment. I’d phone family at home and they’d say to me ‘Why are you doing this training? Come home!’ They did not understand what I was feeling. They didn’t understand how important it was for me to achieve something in my life, given how when I was younger I never felt like I was going to get anywhere, so this for me was holding onto my lifeline and the thought of it going away from me was unbearable.”
“I didn’t tell my family about my feelings. I didn’t tell my training partner or coach, who happened to be in the same apartment when I was cutting myself, although they never knew about it.”
“Why? Because I didn’t think they would understand. I had to be tough. I was going into a World Championship and I had to be mentally focused. A turning point was three weeks after this first incident – when I was really at rock bottom – I won a silver medal at the World Championship. I stood on that rostrum and no one knew what I was going through. No one knew the tears I had had the night before.”
“In one way that made me feel very strong and empowered, but in another way I was still crushed. Here I was, Kelly Holmes; the person I thought was a tough cookie but was actually fragile beyond belief. I came away from that period of time not myself because all I could think about was going through this trauma.”
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When I watched Holmes in 2004, I never knew any of this. I knew about her injuries. I knew how talented she was and how unlucky she had been to be robbed repeatedly of chances to show it. And I knew the Athens Olympics was one of her last chances of success.
But when I look back now knowing that she fought depression brought on by her injuries, it elevates her achievement even further. What incredible strength she showed. What courage it took to fight back from despair and reach the top of the mountain she dreamed of scaling. What an amazing example Kelly Holmes is to anyone who has suffered due to the difficulties life has thrown at them.
So what about the races themselves? They were extraordinary too. Holmes hung back in both the 800m and the 1500m until the last lap. Then she picked her moments and stormed past the rest of the field to claim gold. Her tactics were sublime – and she executed them like she never had any doubts.
As her mother Pam Thomson put it when she was interviewed by the BBC, “Tonight was her night and she was just amazing.”
It was a huge triumph for British sport, and one that captivated the nation. In the course of two weeks, Holmes became a national hero and an icon in her field. Accolades followed: she was voted 2004 Sports Personality of the Year and became a Dame in 2005.
However, as important as Holmes’ achievements were for her country, they were even more important for Kelly herself. She needed those perfect moments to make all her struggles worthwhile, as she explains:
“My saving grace was the Olympic Games. I had a focus and a goal. That is something I always tell people: you have to have something to hold onto. There’s always going to be light at the end of the tunnel. Mine was the Olympic Games.”
“I got a good team around me. I made people realise that I needed them more than ever. I needed my physiotherapist to know that she had to be there no matter what. I needed my training partner, who was an Olympic athlete himself, to help me. It may have been a selfish attitude, but I knew that I needed these people to stay with me, to stay strong because otherwise I was finished.”
“In 2004 I went into the Olympic Games with no injuries for the first time in seven years. While I didn’t tell my team exactly what I was going through, they started to understand that I needed to talk to them away from the athletics track. I needed them to treat me normally and to perk me up when I needing perking up, not just when I needed to run well. This was a transition for everyone. It was about people seeing and talking to me as a normal person and knowing that if I’m crying, not to assume it’s because I’ve twisted my ankle, but to ask me if I’m OK. That made me stronger. “
“People need someone to talk to. We need to share and to care; it’s as simple as that. So talk.”
“I went into the Olympics the fastest and strongest I’d ever been. During that time I started to think more about myself. In 2003 and the years leading up to it, whenever I felt down my nutrition went out the window. In 2004, I suddenly thought more about my health and more about the food I was putting in my body, not just from a performance point of view, but also for brain fuel. I was also sleeping better. I realised that when I was down, I wasn’t sleeping; I was then getting so erratic, so tired and grouchy. Without my team and myself recognising some of those things, I never would have achieved what I did.”
“I believe in fate and that’s why I believe I went through this journey. I can actually prove now to other people that if you have a dream and an aspiration, you can come out of the dark tunnel and there can be a light at the other end.”