I recently went to a running session with double Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes hosted by Intel to try out the great new SMS Audio Bio Sport headphones. We spoke about her career, her work at the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust , how she coped with managing the pressures of a career in athletics and the ways her early miliary background taught her to be disciplined.
How did you end up doing middle distance races and what different skills are required for that type of distance?
I got into middle distance running because I think I was just naturally tuned to it and felt quite comfortable doing it. I was a junior international athlete in the 1500m and after a time in the military I got into the 800m athough eventually reverted back. The 1500m has every element from endurance, natural speed, but you also have to recover really quickly. So we did a lot of interval training, but with really short recovery. You go quite hard and then you get limited recovery and go again. The distance is very tactical in terms of awareness as you’re all in the same lane or two lanes and jostling around so you have to be quite strong. You also have to have a good core strength and do a lot of body weight gym work.
What skills did being in the army teach you that you could use in your sporting career?
I learnt how to iron which is a brilliant skill, although not sport-related! Now I’ve got to iron my clothes when I go out. It’s terrible; I still have to have the crease down my sleeve! I think discipline is what you learn in the army – it’s a disciplined environment and you have to have that with sport too. You’ve got to reach a high level of fitness yourself. You’ve got to have determination, respect and that just goes right across to sport anyway. Obviously, the physical element of it was important. Learning that you can push yourself beyond your barriers is always good. I think the army for me was great, even though I was a junior international athlete I gave up my athletics to join the military. Then when I came back into international athletics about four years later I was much more rounded, focused and the disciplined side of it was easy apply to sport.
How important is mental strength and how it affects your career as an athlete?
I think the truth is that about 90 percent of my career was focused and positive but I’m also a human being so I suffered with depression during my athletics career mainly due to the ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride. You don’t know if it’s going to affect you and it did for me. I am still a focused, driven person but when there are emotional knockbacks you can get into a bit of a state. I suppose how I look at it now is that I always want to push myself to be the best I can and that means putting pressure on yourself. Equally if that makes you happy and proud you have to do it. So for me if I didn’t try and push myself hard, I would be more disappointed about that than if I had pushed myself and hadn’t achieved it. You learn who you are as a person and what makes you feel good.
How do you like to stay fit and active now that you no longer compete?
Well, I like running with music and doing a mixture of activities now like going to the gym, out on my bike, classes like Insanity. I also enjoy short interval work like HIIT training. I do things for fun too like going out with people. I think it’s a bit more motivating because I haven’t necessarily got a set goal to achieve. So if my goal is about keeping fit and active, I then want to do things that are going to be a bit of everything. If you’re trying to keep fit, you’ve got to have cardio capacity, you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got be supple. If that’s just about everyday life, then you have to do the range.
The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust sounds like a fantastic initiative. How do athletes and young people get involved with it?
The charity is twofold. We work with retiring and retired sporting champions. We have 250 people that we’ve worked with, helping them transition into new careers and a new life, post-sport. We also deploy about 100 of them on our young people’s programmes. My charity essentially works with disadvantaged young people from a variety of backgrounds and communities and tries to get them back into work, employment or training. We use the skills of retired sports people as the motivators and mentors. Rather than using authority figures who the young people may want to rebel against, normally because they think they don’t care, our athletes have empathy, a real life story and a real way of pushing themselves which they can pass on. It’s a really nice combination which no one else has got. I’m quite proud of it. We’ve been going seven years now.
So, how does it feel knowing you can impact so many lives through your achievements and knowledge in sport?
I do a lot of motivational speaking via the corporate; schools and companies generally. Everyone knows me as winning two gold medals, but aspects of my story, my background, my journey probably resonate with people. If one bit of it resonates then think it’s actually possible to make changes and feel good about yourself. I quite like the fact that I’ve had such a diverse life, literally from childhood. I was in a couple of homes when I was younger and then had that one person that tells you can be good. I always say it only takes one person to change your life. That’s what we say about our charity. I was lucky that I had a talent and that I was pushed to do it, and then fortunate that I stuck to it, and then went for my dreams. I like speaking to women in particular because I think some women can put a lot of barriers and excuses in their way which we like to help them overcome. There are so many women that have been so successful in life, generally, and if you take a lead from some of those examples – then you can strive.