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Athletes never give up dreaming. If they did, they might as well give up athletics, but after her nightmare visit to Athens seven years ago, only Kelly Holmes could have imagined herself coming back here and taking Olympic gold, as she did last Monday, and challenging for a historic second on Saturday night.
On her only previous visit here, Holmes began as favourite for the World Championship 1,500m title in 1997, but that dream exploded along with an Achilles tendon. Surgeons told her she would never run again.
“It was the first race, on the first morning of the Championships,” she recalls. “I was there for, what, all of four, five minutes? The lasting memory for me is of limping down the home straight with what felt like a golf ball exploding in my calf.
“Then I was whisked off to Zurich for treatment. Those were my memories of Athens, so they're not very fond ones.”
Her start in elite athletics was equally downbeat. A former English schools champion, she gave up the sport in her late teens when she went, as she puts it, “Army-barmy”.
She enlisted and, in a move that doubtless stood her in good stead for any media criticism later, became that most reviled of figures, the PTI, or physical training instructor.
While taking a rest from throwing male squaddies around the judo mat 12 years ago, she wandered into the mess hall, where the television was tuned to the Barcelona Olympics, and recognised one of her former opponents, Lisa York, running for Britain in the heats of the 3,000m.
“I used to beat her when I was a kid,” Holmes told a fellow sergeant. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could be doing that'. If she could do it, I was sure I could. It gave me back the dream I had as a kid of running at the Games.”
Thus began a cycle of triumph and tribulation. Within two years, she won Commonwealth gold and European silver at 1,500m, followed that with World bronze and silver in the 800m and 1,500m in 1995, but a stress fracture reduced her to fourth in the Olympic 800m in Atlanta.
Then came the disaster of Athens '97, since when her successes have been punctuated by an endless series of injuries, involving more medics than medals. The fact that she is still on track is, she says, a tribute to almost daily treatment, by Paula Radcliffe's physio, Ger Hartmann, and her own practitioner, Alison Rose.
“Alison has kept my body in one piece,” she says.
Even in default mode, Holmes has managed to become Britain's most be-medalled woman athlete, with further medals in Sydney (bronze), Manchester (gold), Birmingham and Paris (silver).
Then, last Monday, aged 34, Holmes became the oldest woman to win the Olympic 800m title. On Saturday, she attempts to rewrite more records by becoming the first British woman to win the elusive 800m/1500m “double”, and emulate Albert Hill, who did it in 1920.
“I've already got more than I expected,” she said after her semi-final stroll. “I think they'll take it out a bit faster, to get away from me. I have to be in the right place, in case anyone strikes”.
Judging by her 800m victory, and the ease with which she has got to her second final, the only one striking will be Holmes.
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