Kent Life interviews Dame Kelly Holmes

Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes talks about her charity work, motivating today's young athletes and why Hildenborough will always be home

Kent Life interviews Dame Kelly Holmes  

She knew by the age of 14 that she wanted to be an Olympic champion, and 30 years later, that’s exactly what she did. Kent’s very own Dame Kelly Holmes talks about her charity work, motivating today’s young athletes and why Hildenborough will always be home

The diminutive figure walking towards me, as I wait a tad nervously outside Tonbridge School’s Sport & Media Centre, could only be one person. But the outfit – tiny skirt, towering heels, smart whole blouse and blue jacket – is not what I immediately associate with our greatest Olympian.

Today, however, I am meeting Dame Kelly Holmes – businesswoman. Life has changed completely since her spectacular double-gold performance at the 2004 Games in Athens, but as I am to discover, she is still the Hildenborough girl we locals know and love.

“Call me Kelly,” she says immediately, as we fumble over Dame. ‘We’ being Germaine and Louise, here to do make-up and hair respectively – not something I’ve been asked to provide before, but Kelly is clearly image aware and wants to look her best for the camera.

We four local girls keep photographer Manu waiting ages, chatting about all the places and people we have in common. I tell Kelly how I used to cycle to Hildenborough village station in my early commuting days, and she remembers how much she hated biking the three miles to and from her secondary modern, Hugh Christie - until the glorious day when she roared up to school on her first scooter.

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“Growing up, I loved it here,” she smiles. “We used to go scrumping over the orchards by the primary school in the holidays, and make rafts at the brook down Riding Lane.”

Academia was another matter. “I was rubbish at school,” she admits. “Sport, and my friends, were what definitely got me through. PE, Duke of Edinburgh and out of doors was what I liked – anything to get me out of the classroom!”

And it was at Hugh Christie that she met her first mentor, PE teacher Debbie Paige, who spotted Kelly’s burgeoning talent. “When we started doing athletics at school I got interested and it even got me into this blooming cross country race we had to do – I hated it, mud, wind, wet, cold!

“Debbie just said we need you in the team, so I did it. I came second to Stacey Washington who was at Sussex Road and a brilliant girl at that age.”

Kelly joined Tonbridge Athletics Club when she was 12, where she was coached by Dave Arnold and went on to win the English Schools 1500 metres in only her second season. She remembers “just a few huts on the hill” when she first trained at Tonbridge, not the state-of-the-art facilities there are now. These days she is bringing athletes she mentors back here: life really has come full circle.

There was another pull, however, that was to take Kelly away from Dave and Tonbridge for seven years. “Since the age of 14, I wanted to go into the Army, same as I wanted to be an Olympic champion,” she says.

I was rubbish at school. Sport, and my friends, were what definitely got me through

“We had the careers people at school and the military showed us their videos about the Army, Navy and Airforce. I definitely didn’t want to do the Navy, because I hated water, the RAF seemed a bit boring, and then they showed this video of Army soldiers shouting and going under scramble nets and I thought, I want to do that!”

She made her mum take her every year from the age of 15 to the Army recruitment office in Tunbridge Wells, but was turned down every time until she finally reached the magic minimum entry age back then of 17 years and nine months.

“I wanted a career that was a bit different, and I wanted a challenge – I liked the thought of pushing yourself and the discipline side of that. I’ve always been a competitor, and I still am.” You can say that again.

Lacking many academic qualifications, Kelly went in as an HGV driver in the WRAC, later becoming a physical training instructor. “I loved everything about it, the camaraderie more than anything,” she says. “The bond that you get with everyone is brilliant. I’ve still got mates from back then – all my mates are from when I was 12 at school and 19 in the Army.”

It wasn’t long before her athletic prowess was potted and a third mentor, Middlesex cross country trainer Wes Duncan, eventually convinced Kelly to see him and start training. At one event she competed in and won an 800 metres, a 3000 metres and a relay race, in a single day. She even became British Army judo champion.

Then in 1994, Kelly called up Dave Arnold and asked if he’d be her coach again: it was the start of a long and often painful road to victory, and no little adjustment. “I’d gone in as a little girl, then I’d become an Army Sergeant and was used to giving the orders!”

Kelly managed to combine both athletics and her employment in the army until increased funding enabled her to become a full-time athlete in 1997. Injuries dogged her career – until that magic year. “I suppose I went into the 2004 Olympics slightly differently because it was the first year in seven that I hadn’t had an injury,” she says.

“I had a lot of confidence, my training had gone amazingly well, I had a brilliant team of people working with me and I then had to decide, OK, this is definitely going to be my last Olympics. It was my third one and by then I had nothing to lose and everything to win. And I was definitely in the right place at the right time.”

Kelly tells me about an extraordinary moment the day before her 800m race. “I had pushed my two beds in my room together (I actually got my own room at that age!) and pushed my wardrobes together, and I shut all the windows and doors and I sat there and was thinking right, this is it.

“I put on Alicia Keys If I ain’t got you and as I sat on the bed and, no word of a lie - bearing in mind all the doors and windows were shut - this gust of wind circled my neck three times and gave me the shivers, and I just thought oh my god, I’m going to do it!

“That happened three times through that championship. I definitely believe in fate: I’m not religious, but I do believe if something is meant to happen, it will happen.”

With the 800m under her belt, Kelly went into the 1500m – her dream race since she was 14 and watching her hero Sebastian Coe at the 1984 Olympics.

“I absolutely felt like I was floating in that race, it was the weirdest thing, I was running and it literally felt like I had wings on my shoulders. When I crossed the line it was like this massive ton of weight just lifted off my shoulders because I’d wanted to be an Olympic champion since I was 14 and here we were 20 years later and I’d actually won it!

“I just felt I was in place where I was so happy – I’d been through so much emotion and pain in my career and fought to get where I got and finally it all came together.”

It certainly did. Kelly Homes was no longer the athlete who never quite made it, she’d just launched herself into an elite league few had ever equalled – and at an age when most athletes would be hanging up their trainers.

Many red-letter days were to follow, but she 

says few can match her homecoming parade - even carrying the British flag at the closing ceremony of the Games. “It was definitely one of the best days I have ever had,” she beams.

“I was staying with my mum and the crowds were there right from mum’s house, all down London Road and into Tonbridge {where yours truly was among the 40,000 people who turned out to cheer their girl}. I had Debbie and Dave with me on the bus and my friends and family, and everyone was crying. It was amazing.”

I thought Kelly might be fed up talking about the Olympics, but on the contrary: “I’ve got a montage on dvd of the Olympics and my races and I still watch it every week, three or four times. It still means the same to me so I don’t ever get sick of it,”

Life changed for ever then, into Pre- and Post-Olympics. She became Dame Kelly in the New Year’s Honours List of 2005, which joined the MBE she’d already been given for her services to the British Army.

Retiring wasn’t on her mind and she kept competing for another year, but admits: “Clearly I wasn’t concentrating as much and I got injured again and I just couldn’t get over the injury problems. I was sleeping less, invited to lots of different events and I started wearing heels! I was just changing and so was my life. So I decided I’d retire at the end of 2005. I knew it was the right time and at that age I could only really go backwards.”

Kelly had always done charity work throughout her athletics career but more than anything wanted to create her own charity – so the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, which inspires young people to find and fulfil their potential in sport or in life through her very own handpicked workforce of elite sport performers, is a dream come true.

She is working with sporting role models who are all world-class performers – such as canoeist Anna Downing, rower Sarah Winckless, swimmer Adam Whitehead and cyclist Bryan Steel. Quick to praise her elite team, she is also full of gratitude to Aviva, the number one sponsor of UK Athletics for more than a decade, who have backed her unswervingly.

“We work with communities, so we pick regions where we want to work – it could be that sponsors come to us and suggest a location, for example, with Backing Talent, one of our sports programmes.

“We’re going to do one on 12 September at one of the Kent Universities and we’re working closely with the Kent Sports Development Agencies. Kent have their own programmes that help potential Olympians and Kent are being fantastic with the Olympics coming up and really putting themselves on the map.”

Kelly is patron of the Kent 2012 campaign and kicked off the finals of the Kent School Games at the opening ceremony at Maidstone’s Mote Park this June. She has been National School Sport Champion since 2006 and in her first year smashed the Government’s target of getting 75 per cent of children participating in two hours of quality sport and PE a week: it’s increased every year since.

And since 2004, she has taken part in Norwich Union-sponsored On Camp with Kelly athletics camps, helping train more junior athletes. “I realised that so many talented sportspeople gave up at 17 or 18 due to lots of other pressures in their lives and that they don’t necessarily realise they can make a career out of their sport. Because my own career had been such a rollercoaster ride, I knew I had so much experience to pass onto other young middle-distance runners.”

Kelly selected eight out of 50 young girls to take to South Africa for training in October 2004, because she’d always assumed she’d be returning to her old life – but Athens intervened and she then had a completely different story to tell.

“Everyone was saying to me there’s no way after all this you’re going to take eight girls to South Africa for a month, but I did! Coming back I saw such a change, from giggly schoolgirls to young women with absolute drive and determination. Some of them are still with me now, on the same programme, and I have 60 altogether now, about 48 females and 12 males.”

She adds: “It’s now six years after winning and the first four to five years was very much all the celeb bits and the charity work and it’s been great, but I am so driven that I like to push myself and learn new things. I haven’t really had a goal for the last six years and that’s really alien for me.

“Now I know that I want to create a brand of Kelly Holmes for products in the fitness world and leisure arena, so I’m putting myself on business courses with the Institute of Director and I have a five-year plan now.

“We’re hoping this year that I might have the first things out – clothing, equipment, the wellbeing side of nutrition and supplements, things like that. It’s exciting for me because it’s given me another drive, another focus and fire in my belly.”

She is also chair of her own charity, so sits on the board (another first) and is the new President of Commonwealth Games England. “I enjoy all my roles and everything I do,” she says. “My own mentoring is now coming from business people as I am starting from absolute scratch in the business world and for me that’s exciting, because it’s a brand new challenge.”

I’ve had a brilliant couple of hours with one of my all-time heroes, but it gets even better when she invites Manu and I to see her alpacas up the road in Hildenborough.  We follow in convoy to the home she usually guards fiercely from the press, and get to hang out with her dad Mike and six really rather gorgeous alpacas (all named after her favourite sweets) while our Dame climbs out of heels into trainers and cut-off trousers.

Looking half her age – she’s a tiny size 8, ‘four foot three and three quarters’ and an unlikely 40 – Kelly plays in the field with her mini herd and seems to relax utterly, chatting happily about the places she likes to hang out with her mates.

“My friends have been with me no matter what, they keep me grounded and I enjoy meeting up with them, and my family mean everything to me. I eat at The Plough in Leigh quite a bit. They did a medieval party for my big, horrible birthday this year – my 39+1 – in the barn.

“I go out in Sevenoaks and I like The Chaser in Shipbourne. I love Master Chef, the Chinese takeaway in Tonbridge - and chocolate! I really like Tunbridge Wells, especially the Pantiles, and I train at Knole a lot and otherwise just do runs around the roads in Hildenborough. Nobody takes any notice. I opened the Farmers Market in the church hall here two years ago and always shop there when I go in. It’s really added to the community feel.”

She adds: “I am on the go constantly, I have so many areas I’m involved in – charity, business, mentoring, as a speaker, doing promotions for sponsors – but it’s all enabled me to move forward in this next stage of my life. I have learnt so much in the past five years.

“I would never be in the position I am today if I hadn’t gone through all those things in my past or won what I’d won. But not everyone gets that kind of recognition.” 

With thanks to

Tonbridge School Centre

London Road, Tonbridge TN10 3AD

Tel 01732 304111

Germaine Cubbon of All Glam'd Up

Tel 07785 797443

Louise Lawrence of Eklipse Hairdressers, Tonbridge

Tel 01732 368836