Depression, self-harm, suicidal feelings: not words often associated with Kelly Holmes, one of Britain’s all-time great athletes. But the double gold medal winner suffered poor mental health before her triumph in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Perhaps because she knows how it feels when life appears to have given up on you, Holmes is now using her fame to help disadvantaged young people achieve.
And after recently being unveiled as the first national school sport champion by the government, she said she “would like to do a Jamie Oliver for school sport”.
“The best thing that’s happened since I won the Olympics is that I’ve now got a voice to put my point across on things that are important to me,” she says enthusiastically, when I bring up her new role.
“I really like that, people are aware of my story about striving so hard and finally achieving, so it gives me the ideal platform.”
Holmes’ story is a courageous tale of triumph in the face of adversity. Growing up not knowing her real father, embarking on a career in the army as a young mixed race woman before pursuing an athletics career that was dogged by persistent injury problems, Holmes later confessed to suffering from clinical depression and self-harming.
In the lead up to her Olympic triumph she even considered suicide.
“No one knew I felt like that even when I was crying in the bathroom, self-harming with scissors and turning the taps on so nobody could hear. Everyone saw me as a self-motivated person that they thought could do everything. But life can turn bad for everyone and it doesn’t take long before you start sinking. I became very low and it was only when I finally spoke to someone about it that I realised what I was doing.”
Holmes is evangelical about the power of sport.
“I’m aware of what a phenomenal impact sport can have on your self-confidence, your sense of purpose, everything really,” she says. “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of school kids this year and I’ve seen lots of examples of youngsters who’ve been touched in a really powerful way by the Living for Sport programme.”
An initiative set up between the Youth Sport Trust and BSkyB, Living for Sport targets young people between 11 and 16 who are at risk of opting out of school. Holmes is adamant that such initiatives are sorely needed if the power of sport is to be used to tackle social exclusion.
“I do think sport could be used more to engage hard to reach groups,” she says. “There’s a lot of great sporting initiatives happening at the moment and the impact they’re having on disadvantaged kids is immense. They bring down barriers, empower people and we’re getting people to start communicating with their peers. That’s a very big issue.
Confidence and self-respect
“One lad I saw in London recently just wasn’t engaging at school at all. He didn’t really have any direction in his life. He went on the Living for Sport programme and I saw how it gave him confidence, focus and self-respect. There was such a change in him and sport was the catalyst for that. I honestly think he’s got a big future ahead of him now.”
Critics will no doubt argue though that greater government commitment to sport is needed.
As for the young people themselves, if anyone can get them interested in sport, it is Holmes, who is a genunine inspiration. She may have her work cut out. Shopping is the favourite pastime of schoolgirls, with sport a long way down the list, according to a 2005 Norwich Union survey.
“I never even liked athletics before I saw Kelly,” one young girl told me as she stood watching her.
Before she’s pulled away to meet her many fans, I ask her what sport did for her as a young girl growing up in Kent.
“It gave me direction,” she says with conviction. “When I was very young it gave me a purpose because I’d found something I was good at. People started to look at me differently then. It gave me self-respect, suddenly I could see that life had opportunities opening up in front of me.”