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Dame Kelly Holmes: ‘Believing in yourself is so powerful’

The double Olympic champion says she always knew she would achieve her dream if she just kept trying
Dame Kelly Holmes, athlete and media personality. © Sarah Lee / Guardian / eyevine

Dame Kelly Holmes is one of the greatest British athletes of all time, whose incredible double gold medal-winning performance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens capped a glittering career.

But in the years before the Games that would cement her place in Olympic history, Holmes struggled with her mental health and would frequently self-harm. Since retiring from athletics Holmes has become a powerful mental health advocate, motivational speaker and a champion of youth – helping young people thrive through physical activity and retired athletes as they transition from sport through The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust.

In a candid Letter To My Younger Self, Holmes told The Big Issue about her remarkable athletics career and her battles with depression and self-harming – both before and after her Olympic triumph – and offers the 16-year-old Kelly life advice about working hard and carrying on.

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Running was always my release. By 16, I was already into athletics. But I wasn’t running well because I was doing what teenagers do – messing around and not wanting to listen to other people. I used to have to bike three miles to school because there wasn’t a bus, then biked to training then biked home. That was my life. But the mid-80s was an exciting time to want to be a runner when Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett ruled the world of middle distance running.

If I was at school now, I’d probably be classed as dyslexic. The way they taught I just couldn’t compute. I wasn’t reading or writing properly, with maths nothing went in my head. I wasn’t academic whatsoever. I did my bronze medallion, athletics, anything where I could be outside or meeting people and not having to sit in a classroom. I only went for my friends Kerry, Lara and Kim, who are still my best friends to this day.

I was from a working-class family so we made our own pocket money. I used to wash cars, clean windows, go shopping for the old people across the road who would throw 50p out of the window. And I was quite happy with that. Because I was helping people and it taught me about the value of money and trying to find my own opportunities. I left school at 16 and worked in the newsagents, where I’d had a paper round. The shop was good at bringing people together for a natter. I loved that feel of community but I always had a sweet tooth and kept pinching sweets. A woman called Carol challenged me to see who could stop eating sweets for the longest. She gave up after a month, – me, being this competitive person, did it for one year solid. I’ve always been pigheaded and determined.

1983: Dame Kelly Holme's first big athletics triumph – winning the English Schools 1500 metres
1983: Dame Kelly Holme's first big athletics triumph – winning the English Schools 1500 metres

From the age of 14 I wanted to go into the British Army. I asked my mother to take me to the careers office when I was 14, 15 and 16 and they kept saying I was too young. I joined a month before I was 18. I wanted the feeling of belonging but also getting away from an environment where you felt you can’t do anything in life. I had a roof over my head, got my meals, and loved the sense of having a career because I left school with nothing. I’d never even heard the word university.

At 16, I wasn’t getting on well with my mum. It was a hard part of my life and my relationship with her when she left my stepdad, who I call my dad and is still my dad to this day. But everything my mum did when I was a child shows she was a strong woman. She did not give up her daughter when the adoption services came to get her to sign the papers. And when they put me in a children’s home she still refused to give up on me. She wasn’t into sport. She wasn’t into me joining the army but what we did have in common was that we’re both stubborn and not going to give up.

My younger self would believe me if I told her she would be double Olympic champion. Because I always believed. She would have been so proud – and even more proud because I didn’t give up trying. I won my first medals when I was 24, started winning medals every year but my Olympic medals came right at the end of my career.

To not give up when it got really tough, I am very proud of that. I knew I could win Olympic gold when I ran with a stress fracture in 1996 and still came fourth. At the holding camp they told me I’d have to go home. I said, I’m not going because I might not get to another Olympics. They gave me injections in the bone and there was a risk of my leg breaking, but I got to the final of the 800m and was pipped on the line. All I thought was that if I can come fourth with a stress fracture, I can bloody win it if I stay injury free. But that took another eight years.

Dame Kelly Holmes with her mum Pam after arriving back from the Athens Olympics in 2004. Image credit: Shutterstock
Dame Kelly Holmes with her mum Pam after arriving back from the Athens Olympics in 2004. Image credit: Shutterstock

I had so many injuries and it led to depression, self-harm, a breakdown and anxiety attacks. No one should judge other people, because when it’s your life, it’s hell. I would love to tell my younger self, when she was going through it that she would be OK. I’d tell her to talk to people. People didn’t talk openly about mental health then, it was such a taboo subject.

But it’s a hidden disability and that wasn’t something people articulated. It takes a lot to pluck up the courage to say I need help. Everyone needs support and I got a really good team around me and got my confidence back. Believing in yourself is so powerful. I thought, if I’m still here now, despite all the thoughts I had of not wanting to be, then I’ve got to freaking go for it.

I feel fortunate that I had the ambitions I had at a young age. They were embedded in my head and I always tell youngsters we work with [at the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust], try to find avenues based on passion and dreams and keep that in your head. It can be so powerful. If you don’t have anything to aim for, you can get lost.

When I retired I ended up losing my identity. When you finish something you’ve always wanted you are no longer the same person. My PE teacher Debbie Page told me I could be good if I believed in myself. It only takes one person to make a difference. She was the first person I called when I came back from Athens and we’re close friends now. I started my charity to help athletes when they retire, but then I thought, what if the athletes could help young people from areas of deprivation or disadvantage? A lot of the young people are carers, from care homes, have been homeless or in trouble with the police. We give them the confidence and skills.

What would I advise my younger self about her love life? I’m not sure you are getting a direct answer on that. When you’re brought up in a different way – I was in a care home for the first four or five years of my life and didn’t know my dad – you always have attachment issues. So I would have said you have to learn to trust people and they are not going to just get up and go. I wish someone had told me that.

My younger self would have thought if you won two Olympic gold medals you would never have to work again. Nope. I work harder now than I’ve worked in my whole damn life! I wish I could have a less stressful life but I put the stress on myself because I always want to be good at something. Then I want to be better at it. Then I want to learn something new and I’ve got to be better at that. That’s not always the best life to lead.

Holmes in Belfast in 2018 to launch a scheme aimed at creating future community leaders. Image credit: Dame Kelly Holmes
Courtesty of Dame Kelly Holmes
Holmes in Belfast in 2018 to launch a scheme aimed at creating future community leaders. Image credit: Dame Kelly Holmes

If I could relive one day of my life it would be August 28 2004, crossing the line in the 1500 metres in Athens. All the feelings, the emotions, the satisfaction, the tears – and all of the bad things falling off my shoulders, all of the hard times being released, all of the difficult moments suddenly seeming worth it. It was years and years and years of fighting to do that. When you finally do it, it’s the best feeling and you’re never gonna get it again.

The last day I self-harmed was the day my mum died. I realised she wasn’t going to come back and help me, and that me self-harming wasn’t going to help bring her back or help me. She died three years ago and it was the worst day of my life. She was only 17 years older than me so we were very close. It was awful. I suffered bereavement for a long time. It took a lot of time and talking to people, making sure my friends knew I needed them to be around.

Every day I long to be able to tell my mum what I have been doing. We used to speak every day. I would send her pictures every day. So not being able to tell her about all the great things that have happened, new children in the family from my brothers and sisters. There are so many things I wish she was around for. But it has been a hell of a time, hasn’t it? And she would have hated the pandemic with a passion. She would have been moaning like a good ‘un.