Dame Kelly Holmes: You can’t prepare anyone for grief, but over time it becomes more manageable

Madeleine Howell

We asked the 48-year-old Olympian what her younger self would make of her life today...

I was a very active child: I loved building things, climbing things, riding my bike. I was a child outside the classroom rather than in.

I tried loads of different sports and activities – from karate to ballet – but never stuck at any of them until I discovered running when I was 12.

My PE teacher said: you have a talent, you’ve got to focus on it. She called my mum and told her to send me to the local athletics club. I never looked back after that.

My mum had me when she was 17, and we lived on a council estate in Kent. I never knew my natural father growing up. Back then, it was hard being a single mum with a mixed-race kid, but mine was strong.

"These days I like to go down to the lake in Tonbridge, my hometown, to sit on my mum’s bench" Credit: Getty Images

She met my stepdad when I was four, and then had my brothers, Kevin and Stewart. It was great being a big sister: I was always the boss. We didn’t have much money so I used to wash cars, clean windows and do a paper round to earn some cash.

My mum couldn’t afford a tumble dryer, so each week I’d get my grandad to drive me down to Currys to put £10 towards a machine, which I remember cost £199. We bought it just before Christmas: my brothers and I hid it in my grandad’s shed, and on Christmas Day morning we took it into the front room on a wheelbarrow with a big bow on it. My mum and my stepdad were in tears.

When I was 14, I watched Seb Coe win the 1,500 metres at the Olympics. I remember seeing him on the podium with his gold medal, with the national anthem playing.

Kelly Holmes

I went into school the next day and told my best friend I was going to be an Olympic champion, too. At around the same time, we had school careers talks from the Army, and I knew instantly that was something else I wanted to do; I joined the Army at 18.

Ultimately, I achieved both dreams: winning a gold medal for both the 1,500 metres and 800 metres at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, as well as joining the Army and reaching the rank of sergeant [she was made Honorary Colonel of the Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment last year].

My 14-year-old self would be proud. I never gave up, but I was lucky that I figured out what I wanted to do. I’m still the same person – my values haven’t changed.

I set up the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust to transform the lives of disadvantaged kids through sport because I remembered my teacher telling me I could succeed if I believed in myself. It only took one person to make a difference to my life.

"I never gave up, but I was lucky that I figured out what I wanted to do." Credit: Russell Cheyne

There have been ups and downs, of course. In athletics, there are the highs of winning and the lows of injuries. I’ve been open about my struggles with depression and self-harming. But I got through it. Losing my mum to blood cancer in 2017 was the toughest experience I’ve been through. You can’t prepare anyone for grief, but over time it becomes more manageable.

These days I like to go down to the lake in Tonbridge, my hometown, to sit on my mum’s bench. I wouldn’t say I’ve moved on, but I’m driving myself on – and if I could go back, I’d reassure myself that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Dame Kelly Holmes’s new podcast series and audiobook, What Do I Do? Mental Health and Me, is available from audible.co.uk