September 25, 2021

Dame Kelly Holmes: Cypriot radio, a lucky loo & pain – the inside story of 2004’s double gold

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At Athens 2004, Dame Kelly Holmes became only the third woman in history and the first Briton since Albert Hill 84 years earlier to win the 800m and 1500m Olympic double. This is how she did it.

It started with a song.

One played by an unknown Cypriot radio DJ.

We were on the island for our pre-Olympics holding camp ahead of Athens 2004 and it was unlike any holding camp I had ever experienced before.

In the build-up to the previous six major championships, I always had an injury. Before Atlanta in 1996 I had picked up a stress fracture. Going into Sydney 2000, I had ripped a 12cm tear in my calf muscle.

But in Cyprus , I felt amazing. My track times were well ahead of schedule, I was eating more than ever before, but still losing weight while getting stronger. The whole combination was coming right.

But doing both the 800m and 1500m was still a massive risk.

My dream since I had been a 14-year-old girl was to be the Olympic 1500m champion.

Taking on the extra workload of running the 800m event before could wreck that, setting me a schedule of six world-class races in a little over a week.

I still hadn’t decided what to do as we were driving down to the track for the final session of the camp.

In the car were performance director Zara Hyde Peters and my training partner Anthony Whiteman. I joked to them that I really needed to hear Tina Turner’s Simply the Best right now.

Immediately, on the Cypriot radio on the car stereo, those familiar opening chords started playing.

We were all silent and the hairs went up on the back of my neck. It felt like a sign.

For that final session, all I had to do was two 400m laps, as fast as I could, with 10 minutes rest in between.

I knew the times I wanted and I smashed them to bits.

I was 34. I knew I was never going to be in this shape again this close to the Games. I knew I had to go for it.

Once I arrived in Greece, another song proved key.

Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got you is not your typical warm-up song. It is a slow ballad rather than high-tempo beats.

But it was the one I listened to before every race at that Games because the lyrics summed up my mindset – fame, fortune, and anything else didn’t mean anything if I didn’t come home with the medals.

It was just one part of my carefully planned routine.

I would leave for the track at exactly the same time every race day. I would warm up in exactly the same place. I would wear the same Team GB dog-tag necklace.

It was strategy as well as superstition though. With my workload, my nutrition would have to be perfect to carry my body through the 800m-1500m double.

I wanted to start eating as soon as I could after every race, but you can’t do exactly what you want as an athlete. There are certain obligations and protocols you have to go through.

As soon as you finish each race, you have to run a gauntlet of television, radio and written press. The whole media run could take 40 minutes, maybe more.

Fortunately I had an inside agent. Sally Gunnell, the former World and Olympic champion hurdler, was doing post-race interviews for the BBC. She would be the first person I would see after each race.

And, after graciously agreeing to my texted plea for help, she would also come to the track each day with my pack of cashew nuts to hand over and help me get some calories straight on board.

It all ran like clockwork. Except once.

Before the 1500m final, the officials were calling for the athletes to come out on track. I had one last task: my now-traditional trip to the same portaloo – the one on the far left of a block of 10 close to the call room.

To my horror though, as I tugged on the door I found it locked. There were another nine empty alongside it, but I couldn’t break my routine.

I hammered on the door, frantic that I might miss the start of the final.

A massive foreign thrower opened the door, looked daggers at me, but thankfully let me in. I couldn’t break that routine for anyone!

If that felt like pressure, I had already experienced plenty in the 800m final a few days before.

Coming around the final bend in that race, I was side by side with Maria Mutola. She was the reigning world and Olympic champion, but more importantly she had also been my training partner.

I knew how formidable she was, not just from losing to her previously in major championships, but also from working alongside her up close.

So much of my training had been about trying to shrug off that pressure.

I would be doing the final 100m of a heavy session, full of lactic acid and in pain and my coaches would be shouting one word at me, one instruction that was entirely contrary to everything I was feeling: “Relax!”

In the previous tight finishes, my shoulders had risen, my body had tensed up and my stride length had shortened.

Not this time. I was so strong, I had so much faith in my preparation that I overhauled Mutola in the final 15m or so. I was so focused on beating her though, that I was unaware what was going on behind me.

Dame Kelly Holmes
The top four in the Athens 800m final were separated by only 0.13 seconds

As we had duelled at the front, Moroccan Hasna Benhassi and Jolanda Ceplak were storming up behind.

The three of us crossed the line together. My instinct was that I had got across first. But I wasn’t sure. For a few seconds, everything seemed to go into slow motion as I looked around for confirmation.

It didn’t come from the big screen or the trackside clock. Instead it was when one of the British press photographers. I glanced across and he was jumping up and down in celebration, telling me I had won.

We spoke later and he said seeing me win close up was the best night of his life, but also the worst as he got so caught up in the moment that he missed getting any pictures of the winning moment.

He certainly had an accurate eye and sense of timing though. I had won, if only by five hundredths of a second.

By 02:00 on the morning after winning Olympic gold, some champions might have been sipping champagne. About that time I was shivering in an ice bath, admittedly with the medal around my neck.

I slept with it on my pillow as well, but come the morning it was time for stage two of the plan. I put it in a box, out of sight and out of mind, and pretended I hadn’t won it.

I wasn’t the only one keeping up this pretence. On one of the few days off between the 800m and 1500m final, I went to catch up with some friends and family in one of the private lounges that Team GB had set up.

Before I arrived, unbeknown to me, they had swept the lounge to get rid of all the British newspapers that used to be left about for people to read. They didn’t want me seeing myself staring out of all the front pages and being spooked by the all the attention that was brewing back in the UK.

Whether it was their efforts or not, the 1500m final was an almost surreally calm experience.

Dame Kelly Holmes
Holmes became the oldest Olympic champion in the history of her events

The only opposition that I was really conscious of was Benhassi, whose fast finish for silver in the 800m final had marked her out as a threat.

The rest of the field didn’t really exist for me. It was like racing silhouettes, while I felt like I was floating along as if someone had picked up and propelled me through the race.

As I hit 80m to go, I looked over both shoulders, realised Benhassi was nowhere to be seen and went as hard as I could, without looking back.

Those gold were so much sweeter for all the suffering that had gone before them.

A stress fracture of the shin in 1996. A complete rupture of the Achilles tendon and calf in 1997. A damaged femoral nerve that caused me to lose sensation down one side of my body for five months of 1999. Another calf tear in 2000. Knee problems in 2003. The list of physical problems in my career was long.

But just as painful was the mental side.

I suffered badly with depression and self-harm. Just a year before winning double gold in Athens, I was in Paris preparing for the world championships. While the media obsessed over whether I was working tactically alongside my training partner Mutola in the final, I was suffering a breakdown behind the scenes. Every night away from the cameras and microphones I would be in the depths of despair, hating my life and hurting myself.

But through all that I never stopped believing in myself. I didn’t necessarily believe that I would win two golds, but I was certain of my ability.

Somebody being better than you isn’t failure. You only fail if you don’t do something, if you give up. People had told me that I should. I wasn’t prepared to.

Dame Kelly Holmes
Holmes is now a global speaker and heads the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust that brings together disadvantaged young people and athletes to help each other

Dame Kelly Holmes was speaking to BBC Sport’s Mike Henson

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