Part of a series on the greatest moments in the 75-year history of AW, Dame Kelly Holmes casts her mind back 16 years to the pinnacle of her career – the 800m and 1500m victories she achieved at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games
Wide-eyed and with arms outstretched in a picture of shock and sheer elation, Kelly Holmes had achieved her childhood ambition. But, as it turned out, she was only just getting started.
“I still had my ultimate dream to do,” she says, 16 years later. Fast forward just five days from that triumph, and the British middle-distance superstar had accomplished it.
In Athens, Holmes’ journey to becoming a double Olympic champion started on August 20 when the 2000 Olympic bronze medallist lined up for the heats of the 800m. After all she had been through, this was her time.
“Coming into Athens I had only made up my mind three days before that I was going to actually take part in the double,” Holmes explains. “The 1500m had always been my dream so the thought of doing 800m before was just such a big risk. However, at the age of 34 and knowing that it would probably be my last Games and knowing my achievements in both 800m and 1500m, I thought it was worth the risk – if I could come back with two medals of any colour then, well, brilliant.”
“I felt like I was floating. I believe in fate, I believe that everything I had gone through emotionally, physically, to get to that end goal was for a purpose, to do something extraordinary” – Holmes on achieving a dream double
After winning her heat and semi-final in a controlled manner, Holmes employed the same tactics for the final.
“Going through the heats process, I felt so good,” she remembers. “I had changed my tactics before, to run even pace. If I look back at it now, I would have scared myself because I was so far off the back of the last person, and especially off the person at the front. How I stayed so in the zone was probably the biggest achievement, to not get scared and ruin what I had done for training, not change anything. It worked in the heats and semi-final so of course I kept it for the final.”
Holmes was seventh at the bell but started to move through the field, as did her former training partner Maria Mutola, the defending champion and multiple world gold medallist.
“Coming down the home straight was the hardest part of that run because when you are neck and neck with somebody at that level it is very easy to run into their form,” Holmes explains. “I had trained with her and been in that position before and I had lost most of the time. So I just had to stay focused on my goal which was to relax as much as possible and drive for the line.”
READ MORE: Great moments – Coe vs Ovett in 1980
As she drove, so too did Hasna Benhassi and Jolanda Ceplak and they pipped Mutola into fourth as Holmes gained her first global gold in a time of 1:56.38.
“That moment was just surreal because I didn’t think I had won,” Holmes says. “I thought I had won and then I didn’t think I had won, hence the reaction that I had.”
The biggest moment of her sporting career, but her main aim was still to come. She was advised to put her medal in its box and pretend she had never won it.
“I was like, no!” Holmes laughs. “So I slept with it under my pillow for the first night then it went back in the box and that was it, I didn’t look at it again. I needed that. I needed to get back in the zone.”
She was back on the track the very next day.
“The hardest race was actually the heats,” she says, turning her attention to the 1500m. “I remember seeing all the British fans with the flags, everyone screaming my name, and then being announced as ‘Olympic champion Kelly Holmes’ and I was like ‘oh my god, that’s me!’ Suddenly you have to refocus. I just remember on the last lap thinking, ‘you’ve got to move it, you’ve got to qualify – get going!’ I did it and after that I went back into ‘okay, we’ve started’ and treated it like it was the first event of the Games.”
“During this whole process I had always gone in portaloo number one (just before the race) and it became a superstition. But before the 1500m final, portaloo number one was full. They were calling the finalists and I was like ‘no way!’”
She finished second in both her heat and semi-final, looking comfortable. But not everything went to plan on August 28, the day of the 1500m final.
“I remember during this whole process I had always gone in portaloo number one (just before the race) and it became a superstition,” she says. “But before the 1500m final, portaloo number one was full. They were calling the finalists and I was like ‘no way!’ I was knocking on the door thinking ‘you’ve got to get out!’ And this massive thrower came out and looked at me and I was like, ‘oh my god!’
“I went in and I was looking in the little mirror in the portaloo, like ‘come on!’” she shouts with a smile. “I walked out into the stadium and I suppose the rest is history.
“I felt like I was floating. I was so in the zone. I believe in fate, I believe that everything I had gone through emotionally, physically, to get to that end goal was for a purpose, to do something extraordinary.
“At that moment when I was running I literally felt like I was being picked up and I ended up having ‘angel’ tattooed on my shoulder because it was just like this weirdest feeling. Winning was more than a dream. It was amazing.”
Holmes crossed the finish line in 3:57.90, breaking her own British record set over seven years before, and this time no photo finish was required.
Her homecoming included a parade which saw around 80,000 people take to the Kent roads to celebrate her achievement. She won BBC sports personality of the year and the IAAF female performance of the year. In 2005 she became a Dame and in 2018 an Honorary Colonel, at which time she highlighted the impact her military career had on her athletics journey.
“When I crossed the line in the 1500m it was literally like a tonne of weight had come off my shoulders,” she says. “It’s like this black and white film is ticking back in your memory. It was very emotional to think that I had held on, that I didn’t give up, that I had still achieved it, through all of the dark days, the light was there. It meant more than the world, it was amazing, it really was.”
» This feature was first published as part of a 10-part series in the December edition of AW magazine, which is available to order online in print here and read digitally here. Look out for more from an interview with Holmes on our website soon
» Click here to find out how you can become an AW subscriber to receive our monthly magazine and weekly email newsletters as well as gain access to the online AW Clubhouse, which offers exclusive content as well as the latest results, member-only podcasts, an AW magazine archive, offers and more