Dame Kelly Holmes discusses going from army solider to Olympic champion via several injury struggles

Winning middle distance races at the Olympics requires discipline, which gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes had little of when she was a child.  

‘I couldn’t read very well, I couldn’t write very well and so going into secondary school I felt that I was no-one,’ Holmes told Sky Sports’ Driving Force series which is broadcast this week. ‘I was (sent) outside the classroom a lot because I would be the chatty kid that got chucked out.’ 

Discipline and that sense of purpose, as the documentary reveals, was enhanced by several influences and career choices – none more so than a stint in the army before her athletics took off.

Dame Kelly Holmes has opened up about her life struggles in the Driving Force documentary

Dame Kelly Holmes has opened up about her life struggles in the Driving Force documentary

Holmes won two golds for Team GB in Athens 2004 but overcame several career challenges

Holmes won two golds for Team GB in Athens 2004 but overcame several career challenges

With the Kent-born runner a successful young athlete at schools and youth Olympics level, a visit from the armed forces saw the then-15-year-old Holmes take on another dream. She even turned down a sports scholarship in the United States to join the army. 

Holmes recalls: ‘The army careers office came in and they showed me videos and from that day I wanted to be in the army. I was desperate to get in, even though I had the Olympic dream and they kept turning me away because I wasn’t old enough. 

‘Growing up knowing academically you didn’t really have anything to give and I didn’t know what I could do as a young person other than run. The army gave me an inner belief that I could have a career.’ 

Young athletics prodigy Kelly Holmes then became Corporal Kelly Holmes, with a new dream set of being a personal training instructor underway. 

But sporting development continued during her time in the armed forces through success the Army Championships, though Holmes also had success in their judo and volleyball tournaments. 

Holmes then moved away from athletics success to join the army in the 1990s

Holmes then moved away from athletics success to join the army in the 1990s

She said: ‘I had no inkling to get back into athletics as a sport, I just did it because I loved it. 

‘The direction the army took me was to be good at something again, to showcase sport was my forte.’

But after becoming the physical training instructor she wanted to be as a teenager, Holmes was dragged back into the Olympic community. The 1992 Games, where Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell picked up golds, helped inspire the soldier back into the athletics fight. 

After winning the UK Civilian Championships as Corporal Holmes, she qualified for the 1993 World Championships in the process, leaving her having to balance her armed forces and athletics work. She even used her annual leave from the army to go and compete in major running tournaments. 

Holmes juggled the army and athletics and appeared in her first Olympics in Atlanta 1996

Holmes juggled the army and athletics and appeared in her first Olympics in Atlanta 1996

But injury problems started to kick in. A shin stress fracture nearly ruined her Olympics debut in Atlanta 1996, where she was beaten to a 800m bronze medal by a 10th of a second – even though there was the risk of breaking her leg.  

Achilles tendon and calf injuries followed, with doctors deeming Holmes’ running career over despite it barely getting off the ground. Glandular fever and another calf setback could not stop her from getting the Sydney 2000 bronze medal but another physical challenge was dawning.  

Holmes overcame injury problems to pick up

Holmes overcame injury problems to pick up 

Holmes was forced to have five gynaecological operations after several serious cramps shortly after hard training sessions. The first instance of pain came in the army when one of her ovaries was caught around the fallopian tube. 

Speaking about the pain, Holmes told the documentary: ‘I had some issues down below. It was tearing inside my stomach. 

‘After every hard training session I would crawl to the toilet and I would be bleeding, it would take 20 to 25 minutes for it to calm down.’

All the injury tolls led to mental health problems, which came to a head in the then-34-year-old’s preparations for the 2003 World Championships in Paris. 

Holmes (right) suffered a breakdown before the 2003 World Championships in Paris

Holmes (right) suffered a breakdown before the 2003 World Championships in Paris 

She remembered: ‘I got another niggle in my calf and having that deflated everything about me. Not again. It crushed me and I ended up having a massive breakdown. 

‘I went into the toilets and I just broke down. I looked in the mirror and hated everything about myself because my body was always letting me down. 

‘I saw some scissors on the side and ended up cutting myself for every day I had been injured. (For the Championships) I was putting make-up over scars.’

Holmes recovered in time to win silver at the Worlds and then topped that achievement with gold in both the 800m and 1500m at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. 

The runner then won a 800m and 1500m Olympic gold double in the Athens games in 2004

The runner then won a 800m and 1500m Olympic gold double in the Athens games in 2004

But that success did not stop the mental health problems. Holmes’ retirement from sport in 2005 led to the lack of purpose she felt as a school child and depression struck again. The last time she harmed herself was when her mother passed away in 2017.  

Now at 50, the Olympic champion is striving, through various help schemes, to make sure female athletes can raise their problems in the game. 

She added: ‘When you’ve got a male coach as I did, he didn’t know how to help to deal with it. We never really talked about the hormonal part of being a girl or a female. 

‘Coaches need to definitely understand more about females in sport because we go through so much more. I just had the male gynaecologist who was trying to help me.  

‘What I (also) would have liked as a high-performer, even at 34 when I had my breakdown, was somebody who is a mental health adviser. I think that’s something that has to be put in place across the board.’

Holmes may be retired, but her impact on sport shows no sign of stopping.  

Dame Kelly Holmes’ episode of Driving Force will be shown on Sky Sports Mix on Tuesday January 19 at 9pm. All the Driving Force episodes will be available on demand later this month. For more episodes and information, visit @drivingforceseries on Instagram. 

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