“Most people that have been successful have had setbacks; they just learn to switch it back up,” says Dame Kelly Holmes, World, Commonwealth and Olympic champion, national treasure and committed mental health advocate. "To me, resilience is about understanding that life is a journey.”
Should you ever be limited to one word when implored to describe Holmes, resilient would be a good choice. That she finally grabbed Olympic glory at 34, her last roll of the dice in the twilight of a career plagued by injury and illness, is justification enough. But it is the mental counterpart to that physical struggle - and her battle to not only overcome it but to talk publicly about in order to help others - that proves her grit and cements her heroine status.
"My lowest point came at the height of my career," says Holmes. "It was 2003, I was getting ready for the World Championships and I had a massive breakdown. That’s when I became a self-harmer. I felt like I was under a big black cloud and yet two weeks later I was standing on a podium with a silver medal around my neck and no one knew."
A year on, at the Athens Olympics, she went one better than the silver - two actually - winning double gold in the 800m and 1500m.
Should you need little lift, have a watch of it on YouTube. The sheer disbelief, turned into arms-stretched-overhead triumph, is the culmination of 20 years of training, setback after setback finally diminished into the footnotes of a victorious story. And yet under the Union Jack flags draped around her as she stepped up on to that podium to collect medals and glory were the scars from where she’d taken scissors to the body that had just won her everything she’d ever dreamed of.
That success is no immunity to the most debilitating of mental health issues is no longer something we struggle to accept. Holmes may have secured national treasure status thanks to her athletic achievements, but her work in shifting that understanding deserves plaudits of its own. Many more than she’s been offered so far.
Most recently she launched her own podcast, What Do I Do? Mental Health and Me where she talks to people in the public eye who have dealt with their own issues. "I got to talk to Alastair Campbell about his psychotic breakdown, Davina McCall about how she’s used fitness to cope with alcohol and drug addiction and Rory Bremner on being diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 50," she says. "Through the podcast I wanted to prove that you can still be successful if you’ve struggled – you just might need to ask for help along the way."
But this isn’t a new thing for Holmes. Her message has been a 15-year passion project. Holmes hasn’t just started talking about her struggles recently - her breakdown a painful but distant memory. She first shared her story back in 2005, less than a year after that Olympic win. Remember this was a time when open mental health conversations were not on the agenda. And the idea that clinical depression (she was diagnosed but couldn’t take medication in case it affected her performance) could look like a gold-medal winning Olympian? Well, that’s exactly why the conversation needed to begin, Holmes believes.
“When I wrote about it in my book that was the first time anyone heard about it, and it was scary. I was afraid people would judge me, and some did, but I knew it was something I had to start talking about,” she says of her 2005 autobiography in which she first shared the truth about her mental health issues. “I wanted to tell the truth about my journey, I didn’t want to just write about running around a track, I wanted to write about who I was as a person and how that made me drive for success.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘You’re superhuman’. I wasn’t superhuman,’ she continues. I went through a lot of highs and lows and it was really damn hard. But I had a dream, I had a talent and I had the resilience to continue even when things got tough. I wanted to explain that so I could inspire other people.”
Indeed, being a gold-medal winning record holder - literally the best in the world for a time - gives you a unique take on success. That it was 20 years in the making for Holmes may well give her an authority of perceived failures that few others have. “When we fail, we focus on it all going wrong and forget about where we started; we forget that until then it was actually going pretty well,” she says. “Resilience is about figuring out the changes we can make to stop it happening again. Personally, I see failure as a driver to go, ‘Ok, I’m not in a good place but to get out of it maybe I need to think slightly differently about this approach’.”