How Dame Kelly Holmes won her toughest race - to be herself, out and proud

Britain's Kelly Holmes crossing the finishing line to win the Women's 800m at the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece on 23 August 2004
Britain's Kelly Holmes crossing the finishing line to win the Women's 800m at the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece on 23 August 2004

Two dazzling images define truly golden moments in former athlete Kelly Holmes's life.

The first is burned in the memory of any athletics fan who witnessed it in 2004. Wide-open eyes betraying her disbelief, wide-open mouth indicating her cautious hope and toned arms in the air ready to celebrate the moment when she finally became 800m Olympic champion in Athens.

It crowned a career blighted by injury battles, depression and gutsy near-misses for a national hero who had combined the early years of her track career with a job in the Army.

Watch the race again and you can understand why Holmes, then a 34-year-old track veteran, did her famous double-take. She had been seventh at the halfway point and only took the lead in final few metres ahead of dominant three-time world champion Maria Mutola. Days later, the Kent-born runner doubled up with victory in the 1,500m final.

But a second picture that she values is not from that second race, the many awards that followed or even the moment she was appointed Dame Kelly Holmes as Team GB's first female double Olympic-winning athlete. Instead, it came this year when she stepped on the red carpet for an awards event and was joined by her girlfriend - ending a much longer 34-year journey of self-doubt.

Kelly Holmes and Louise Cullen
Dame Kelly and Louise Cullen made their first red carpet appearance together at the Diva Awards in April

Just a year ago, Dame Kelly came out as gay in an ITV documentary, which ended the years of avoiding talking about her personal life. Now she has written the third version of her autobiography and that book, Unique, is the first in which she says she is honest about her sexuality.

Speaking in an emotional interview for BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, she opened up about why it had taken her so long to go from an 18-year-old who first realised she was gay as a young Army recruit to a 52-year-old woman who was able to deliver seminars on motivational speaking but was nervous about being true to herself.

"I was suppressing who I was as a person," she said. "When you're looking behind your back, when you're worried what people might say, when you think you might get judged or get caught out, you're just holding that back and that caused me a life of mental health problems and years of living in fear."

The reason she kept it secret early in her public life was an obvious one. Until 2000, homosexuality in the armed forces was illegal and Dame Kelly recalled: "I was fearful of losing my career and I loved my career."

She became a full-time athlete in 1997, enjoyed international success and then, after her retirement in 2006, gradually built a third career as a motivational speaker, occasional reality show contestant and regular panellist on ITV's Loose Women. But not once did she let loose on the very personal subject of her love life.

But, as for so many people, the Covid lockdown brought many chances for reflection. She was still grieving the 2017 death of her mother when she was laid low for three weeks with Covid. While ill, she envisioned friends and family speaking about her after her death and sympathetically saying it was a shame she never felt confident enough to "live her life".

One morning, after returning to work, she suffered a moment of anxiety just minutes before she was due to speak via her laptop to a waiting online audience of 500 people. She took 10 months off and decided that she needed to change her life.

Remembering the words of her late mother, Pam Norman, who always knew that Dame Kelly was gay, was a big influence in that. Recalling her grief, Dame Kelly said: "It literally destroyed me, tore a piece of my heart that has never been fixed. I remember her always wanting me to be me, [saying] 'just live your life'."

Having made her announcement, Dame Kelly said she had a new zeal for life. "That change has allowed me to talk authentically and openly, to hopefully not be scared of what people think of me any more," she said.

"It's your problem, not mine, if you judge me. If you cheered me on running around that track with two gold medals for Great Britain, standing on that rostrum with the national anthem playing and I made you proud, then me telling you I'm gay shouldn't change that."

Dame Kelly Holmes and girlfriend Louise Cullen attend the European Diversity Awards 2023 at Intercontinental Hotel on 10 November 2023 in London, England
Dame Kelly says being seen publicly with her girlfriend is something she could not have imagined even a few years ago

So that is why she is so proud to now pose on the red carpet along with her girlfriend Louise Cullen, first at the Diva Awards in April and then at the European Diversity Awards last Friday.

She said: "I've been to many red carpet events but this time it was nice to be able to take my partner and to not feel embarrassed or worried.

"For her to actually be in a photo… was a nice moment."

There are now no regrets about her decision a year ago. "It was the fear of the unknown and I can definitely say that the fear I had for 34 years was not worth it.

"The day I was able to publicly get the words out of my mouth and say I was gay, the relief was enormous. What it allows you to do is to live your life and be you and everyone deserves to be that."

You can hear Dame Kelly's full interview on Woman's Hour via BBC Sounds.