Welcome to the Jacuzzi Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today, we're joined by Olympic champion, Dame Kelly Holmes. How're you doing?
I'm good. Thank you.
Thanks for having us. How did you get into athletics? Can you go back to that first recollection of being in athletics?
I can, exactly. My PE teacher forced me to do a cross-country race I didn't want to do. I did go, and I ended up coming second, and I think it was the only thing at that age that made me think I hated losing.
Yes, something competitive got me and I then went to my local athletics club and met my first coach. I was 12, and he got me to do everything, but running was what made me feel good and I was good at it.
Was it the competitive thing that hooked you straight away?
I think initially it was because it was what gave me my identity as a youngster. I wasn't really good at school – sport was something I was really hooked on, I loved it. I loved the feeling, what running was about. It made me feel good that I can achieve something, and it set goals and dreams.
Can you just take us through that journey and how that was?
Yes. So one of my first English Schools' when I was 13 years old, 1,500 metres down in Plymouth, and then it went on from there. I went to English Schools' every year. I won my last English Schools' when I was 17, and I also became Mini Youth Olympic Champion at 800 metres when I was 17. So those memories are what stayed with me because I was actually inspired to become an Olympic champion by watching the Olympics myself when I was 14.
So which games was that that inspired you?
That's going to make me sound very old, I don't do age. At the Los Angeles Olympic Games, there was a runner called Sebastian Coe, who's one of the best athletes in the world, against another guy called Steve Ovett. They blew the world apart in middle distance running, and he won the gold medal in 1,500 metres and I watched him, and that was it. I was going to be Olympic 1,500 metre champion.
When you decided to transition out of running into the army, what was the trigger?
Well, I think I was very fortunate as a youngster, I knew what I wanted. So, as well as wanting to be Olympic champion, I also wanted to be in the army as a physical training instructor. I think that was about structure, discipline and pushing yourself to be the best version. I wanted to be a soldier. I loved the physical side that it brought. And so I left my athletics career, I went into the army just before I was 18, became a physical training instructor when I was 21, and at the same time, I was already running for the army and they encouraged me, I suppose, in a way, to see if I wanted to do a little bit more. But I think wanting to be a soldier first and foremost had a break on my transition to senior athletics, but I did, and, yes.
So, was it almost that the dream to go into the armed forces was stronger than the dream to become Olympic champion?
That's hard to say. I think it was more that, at that age, not being academic at school, university wasn't even a word that I'd heard of. You had to get a job, and the army enabled me to see that I could have a career with limited, I suppose, exams to fall back on. It gave me an opportunity to actually learn, grow, have a structure and a job, so I went.
So those two dreams you had, both of those are very big things on their own. How did you balance them?
So, my Olympic dream, I suppose, was reignited when I watched another Olympic Games that were in Barcelona, and this time I'm a soldier. I was a corporal by then, and I watched the Olympic Games in my barracks. I remember seeing a girl that I used to run against back here in Kent at those Olympics. I was like, “wow.” So I suppose it reignited.
The Olympic movement always has the ability to inspire and motivate you and to do things, whether that's just to get out for the first time and do some exercise or whether it's to pursue dreams because you see things are possible. And I suppose, watching those Olympic Games just reignited the dream that I had when I was a youngster. This is something that I know I can be good at and another avenue, I suppose, to being successful.
Do you think that it got that competitive thing back in you again? Did you feel like that was fulfilled in the military career?
Yes. So, I was in the military for nearly 10 years, and it wasn't about the competitiveness in the military. Or maybe you are, but more to yourself. When I transitioned to become a PTI, physical training instructor, it was about keeping soldiers fit. So in turn, that kept me fit. So, the competitiveness was actually making sure I was stronger and faster and better than any bloke that was in the army because that was my role, to get them fit. So, I didn't want them turning around saying, “it's a little 5 foot 4 woman.' I had a big enough mouth, so it was alright. I commanded their attention, but it was important for me to prove that it doesn't matter who you are and what you've come from and what you look like and what you feel, it's that actually, if you're good at what you do, the credibility and respect should come from that.
I wanted to work really hard as a physical training instructor. The athletics were these fluffy clouds that you dream of when you're young, and you look and watch other people compete. They seemed so unattainable at the time because when you watch TV, it's an unreal world. You just think, 'This is incredible.' But, saying that, I did actually go to my first international race, still serving in the army, still serving full time, using my leave to go away and compete, and I went on a team which was a World Championships, and that World Championships had Olympic champions from the games that I was really inspired in '92. These were '93 World Championships. Sally Gunnell won a world championship medal in the 400 hurdles and had won Olympic Games in the games that I watched. Linford Christie, who was one of our finest 100 metre sprinters, was on that team. It was something very incredible to be on a team with these amazing superstars of Great Britain. That gave me a fire in my belly.
So, when you were in the army, you almost felt like you wanted to prove that it didn't matter who you were or where you come from, you could do what you wanted to do. Did you feel when you got your MBE for services to the army that that was a case of, 'well, again, I've almost achieved that goal?’
Yes, very much so. I think that out of all the accolades I've won – I mean, I appreciate and it's amazing to get all of them – but that one's very special to me because, being an international athlete, it's very easy to assume that the army gave me time off to go and do that, but that wasn't the case back then. I used my leave. I wanted to be a really good soldier, and at the time, when I got back into my international athletics, I wanted to be the best athlete in the world. So leaving the army after nearly 10 years and getting recognized like that was amazing.
When you were in the army, when was that point of going, 'I've done this, and now I'm going back to the Olympic dream?’
So, I'd multi-medalled at a championships whilst I was still in the army, but also, towards the end when I decided to leave, I'd got a really bad injury. So, I'd got a stress fracture at my first Olympic Games, and then in '97, I'd got a complete rupture of my calf muscle and a torn calf. And then I was going back into barracks trying to be a physical training instructor. It doesn't go hand in hand. I think I realized then that I wanted and needed to pursue my dream of being an Olympic champion. I was 27 years old. You never know in sport when it's time to give up. I was still at my best. I was very, very strong, and I decided, 'that's it. I'm going to go for my Olympic dream.'
So, going into the 2004 Olympics, how was the preparation going into that?
It was the best year I'd ever had. It was the first year in seven I hadn't been injured. I was eating properly, sleeping properly, training effectively, and I had a really good team around me. Physios, people in the team almost feel like mentors… you matter, you get it right. It's almost about that, everything before was a test. That's how I look at it because you never know when you're going to reach your absolute best, where you're going to tread over that line, or whether you're just not good enough. You just don't know, and every race is another race.
So going into those championships, my confidence just rose, my ability to believe in myself. I was number 1 in the world and top 5 in the world for years, so I always had the ability to be one of the best, but when injuries hit you, that's hard. So, preparation was amazing. I was even surprising myself. I'd do these training sessions, and I'd have guys who would train with me because they would pull me along, and some of the times we were reaching, I was just like, 'this isn't right. Your clock's not right.' And then I'd have to reconfirm it with my coach or my mentor, and I'm just like, 'why am I running so fast?' But I think it was just, when you're injured as an athlete, there's lots of rehab. You need to relax a lot more. You need to look after your body, pretty much. I mean, hence a Jacuzzi sitting behind me, but you need to prepare far more than just doing the physical training. I think over the years, physically, I was always very, very strong – but I probably, if I'm honest, didn't concentrate as much when I got injured. It was almost like I put myself on a downer rather than thinking, 'use this time to get stronger mentally, stronger physically, do all the rehab you need to do, and go again.'
So, when you're going through those really difficult periods, was it just that the dream was so strong?
Yes and no, there were lots of things, but the dream was so strong, so when you get injured it's just a knock. Any elite athlete will tell you injury is the worst thing. If somebody loses their job, somebody comes to you the next day and say, 'I'm sorry, mate, but you haven't got your job today.' That's like a stab, because it's what you're focusing on. It's what you do. When you get an injury, it's the same thing. Just doesn't feel good. So anyway, 2004 all went so well, but I was just scared of then getting injured again. So you go through the motivation, 'this is brilliant,' and suddenly it's like, 'what if it all goes wrong?' But I just had to control those feelings. I had to listen to my coach and the physio. We pulled it back when we needed to pull it back. We did the rehab that we needed to do to maintain the strength and the fitness that I'd gained over that period.
And is that the hardest thing for you, pulling it back?
Is that more difficult for you?
It's hard. I mean, I learned to adapt training, which is very key. Despite the fact I was injured for seven years of my training, I won 13 international medals. I learned how to adapt. I learned how you use other machines and other therapies, i.e. like physio is a really good tool for helping strengthen areas that maybe you're not really thinking about, they pull you back. They tell you, 'no, you need to do rehab before you go and do the next thing.' You know, ice baths were a thing then, but it was just literally in a bath with cold water and ice out your fridge that you could get. You know, that's transformed. Recovery therapies have transformed. In 2004, the biggest support therapy-wise I had was doing ice and heat, so I'd go in ice bins then, you know, a third of ice and the rest water, and then, into a boiling hot bath, and you look at it, and you think, 'well, that's torture,' but it was actually the best recovery therapy that I integrated into my training regime.
I think it was just that, over the years things have become better. Whatever you get, if you look at sport right now everything has become so much better. Strength conditioning coaches, data analysis, performance analysis, everything is so much more advanced.
At that race in the Olympics, anyone who watched that would think you were out, no chance of coming back, but was that always your plan?
Yes. So, I had focused really hard on running the even pace and training, part of my strategy was to be able to run as efficiently as possible, as fast as possible, and so, I just practised, practised, practised, practised, and when I got into the heats and semi-final, I used that practice, but to the untrained eye, they would think, 'what is she doing?' You know, I was so far back in the race, I was 30 metres off of the other seven at one stage in the 800m. It was scary for time for me, as well as everyone else.
You know, it's a fast race but it's, like, strategy. I know myself, I know my body. By then, I'd been racing for, oh my gosh, like, 22 years, by then. So, I know how to perform, that's the difference – it's what this does up here, and then, what other people do, as in get in your way, for your strategy. I knew I wanted to run as even as possible over two laps, let's say, for the 800m, and each 200m should be roughly the same time, and I learnt about my opposition. I knew who were the front runners, I know how fast people go for female middle-distance running for the first 200m of an 800m, and I just used that, because I trained for that race, and it came together.
In that race, did you ever have doubt?
There was no time for doubt in an Olympic final. I just had to stick with the plan and not get scared. You know, I think there is one thing that maybe I could say, fortunately, that I just trusted myself, probably for the first time. You know, going in injury free, that's all I had to think about was racing, whereas previous years, when I'd been fighting to get back fit, it was all consumed with, 'will I get there?' When I get there, it's almost, like, a relief, but when your mindset's changed because your body is changing and you're as fit as you can be, you're one of the best in the world, like you're unreachable and untouchable really, when you're at that stage, I just had to trust. That's hard. I mean, it's a hard thing to trust yourself because you hope it all goes right.
It's so hard not to let the emotion take over.
The Olympic final was crazy. You know, it's something else. It's every four years. That date in the diary doesn't move for you to say, 'do you know, what? Not feeling well. Can you give me another couple of days?' It's not going to move, so the pressure is on, and I just feel, you know, I've had many years to reflect on it – of course, whether you can say it was fate or the fact that every year which was a struggle, physically or mentally, allowed me to learn so much more about myself… why I wanted it, how bad it was to want it, and also, as an elite athlete, what it took to be the best.
You finished that Olympics as double Olympic champion. Did that feel as good as you thought it would?
Oh, yes, I mean, geez. Everyone says, 'what's it feel like?' And I'm just like, 'I don't know. What would you feel like?' you know, you're stood on top of the rostrum with a gold medal around your neck and the national anthem playing, the British flag flying, you're like, 'well, how would you feel?' You know, everyone has that sense of, 'oh my God, it would be amazing.' It's exactly that, because you are the best in the world.
Everyone wants to be Olympic champion when they get serious about sport and they're competitive in sport and they reach a pinnacle or they go through the Commonwealth, European champs, world champs cycles. It's Olympics that everyone wants, you know, and it'd been a dream since watching Sebastian Coe. So, to finally do it was, I mean, you know – the truth is when people seed my races, the 800m, I thought I'd win a medal, no way I thought I'd win Olympic Games.
You had such an up and down journey, I feel it should've felt even better for you than a lot of the other people?
It was incredible. To win the 1,500m, of course. I mean, I still find it hard to put into words the concept of the enormity of it because, you know, I ran six races in nine days, was the first woman ever in Great Britain to win two gold medals at the same games. There's only one other man, like, in the 20s that won two golds. So, the enormity of what I'd done never sunk in straight away. Three months later I'm standing in my mum's back garden saying like, 'pinch me.' You know, as the world's going mad around me, I'm saying, 'pinch me,' thinking I'm still going to run, because I think I'd been dreaming of it so much and put so much into wanting it, I never ever, ever, ever thought about actually getting it. It was what I wanted, but I didn't think how it would feel, what I would feel the next day, if I had this shining medal. What would come from it. It was never about that, it was almost about proving to myself that I could do the dream that I'd set.
When you transitioned out of professional running, that's a big void to fill.
Yes, it is.
How was it?
The first six months I ate every takeaway you can imagine. I'm not lying. I was just like, 'oh, you know, sod it, I've done it now.' I just let myself go. Then it's hard to refocus, you know, because I wasn't retiring, I didn't retire then. So, I still had other championships to go for, but my head and heart wasn't really in it. I got injured again, and then, it's hard to come back because the fight isn't there. Every year, I got injured, the fight was there to get to any championship in that year, I would fight until it was impossible for me to actually get in the team and get to that champs. There was no fight anymore because I'd done all the fighting. It was almost that I didn't know how to. Was I ready to retire? Should I not?
Anyway, I did. So, six months, like I say, after retiring, I ate, and then, you have to learn to adapt. I think one of the things that was a benefit of having those injuries, I knew that I could go in the gym and keep fit. I could go for a walk and keep fit. I could do a run but not have to sprint, and so, I was able physically just to think, 'okay, well, I'm not running or training at that elite level.' I suppose I just missed having that structure around me. You know because you do. It's like the same as the army. You know what's expected. I had a rank, same as in athletics, I had a position, I was the athlete. You have people around you, helping you get there. You don't necessarily need them anymore around you – you know, you're not on the phone to your physio every minute saying 'oh my God, what do I do? I've just twisted my ankle, help.' You know, they weren't there. That was the void. The structure, the environment that you live in wasn't there. It's hard.
How long did it take to fill that structure for the period after sport?
It took a while, but I was also running a mentor and education programme, so I put a lot of energy into helping transition young junior athletes, teaching them what it took to become a world class athlete, the highs and lows – you know, I'd had such a journey that I think I was in a good position to do it. So, I'd already started that, prior to winning my two gold medals. So, that did fill a void in a way, because I was allowed to give my energy to those in a sport that I loved and was part of and just finished. So, that was that, and I started my own charity, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, in 2008, and that's still going, and we utilise skills of retired and retiring athletes to mentor young, disadvantaged kids. So, the power of sport is important.
I've always said, and still believe it to this day, that it takes only one person in someone's life to make a huge difference to their life forever. My PE teacher did that for me. She told me I could be good at something, if I believed it. I took those values into starting my trust and we've helped over 400,000 young people and transitioned the careers of like nearly 500 international athletes. So, just through that one piece, you forget how what you do and what you say, and you don't realise the impact on other people. You know, Sebastian Coe winning, he was winning for himself – he was winning for his dream, but he ignited mine. I became an Olympic champion, I've inspired others who have become Olympic champions, and it just goes on, so it's important to still stay to those roots as well.
Do you feel like you've had something else that's the selfish thing you're doing for you since you finished being a professional athlete?
I think I've always done the charitable work. It's something I've always done. Now, I've started things for other people.
It's almost doing it for other people because you want to help them do it as well.
Always, yes. I think most of the things I've done in my life have always been to benefit other people, but I'm going to start doing things for me.
What are the three biggest lessons you live by or have learnt through your journey?
I think always to believe in yourself, surround yourself with positive people and people that want you to be successful and, never give up, I suppose. You keep going until it's absolutely impossible to go any further, otherwise, you'll never know what you're missing.
Keep it simple.
Just go for it. Do what you do best, you know? Everyone has a passion for something. Some people will find it harder to find that passion, but when you've got a passion for it, you've got to take it all the way, because it's your life, you've got to live that.
Thank you very much.
Thank you. It's been really cool.