By Mike Rowbottom

Mike RowbottomWatching Kelly Holmes conduct proceedings at a press conference in London last week to highlight a new study into the benefits of her On Camp With Kelly project - the top line being that of the 45 athletes she is currently mentoring, 80 per cent are achieving at a higher level than peers outside the group - I was reminded of watching her do the same kind of thing in a similarly sized, but much hotter room in Potchefstroom a couple of months after she had earned her remarkable Olympic double at the 2004 Athens Games.

That first On Camp press conference in South Africa in November had attracted enormous media interest, given Holmes's astonishing exploits.

The side-room in the Potchefstroom physiotherapy block was jam-packed, a single electric fan striving in futility against temperatures, which, even by local estimation, constituted a heat wave. Camera crews sweltered at the back, journalists and coaches filled the central seats and eight young female athletes sat in orderly rows at the front, directly under Holmes's gaze.

As she pointed towards the schedule she had written on the board, Holmes spoke with a clarity and assurance that it was hard to recall her demonstrating before in her 11-year career as a world class athlete.
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This was the woman who, eight months earlier, had subsided in tears of frustration beside the indoor track in Budapest where her ambitions of winning the world 1500 metres title had come to grief with a fall. This was the woman who had finished her final pre-Olympic race, a 1500m in Zurich, agonising aloud over whether doubling up over 800m in Athens would be a good or a bad idea.

Throughout her competitive career, Holmes had always been an epicentre of swirling emotion, constantly beset by injuries, constantly striving to overcome them, desperate to achieve, tormented by doubt.

And since the double Olympic triumph, which had elevated her into one of the nation's most celebrated personalities, her life had taken a further bewildering turn. Towards Downing Street receptions. Dinners at Buckingham Palace. Pitch side introductions to England's football supporters, with David Beckham in attendance. Television appearances alongside Sting and Robbie Williams, and, oh yes, Tom Cruise was there too.

Yet here she stood. A former Army Sergeant and PTI back in command.

And as she surveyed the nervously giggling charges who had earned the right to spend a month under her guidance, the old Army tone returns effortlessly to her voice.

"Am I hurting you? I should be. I'm standing on your bleedin' ponytail!"

Well, no. It wasn't quite like that. But the understanding of authority was equally clear. "I have eyes in the back of my head and everywhere and the girls know that now," Holmes said, with a faint smile. "I'm spying on them every single day - they know what I'm talking about." More giggles.

The dynamic was largely the same in the Tower Film Studios this week, although seven years of presentations and public speaking have given Holmes a new fluency.

As the report, put together by leading sports psychologist Dr Anna Waters, made clear, the palpable success of this project - count the medals - is grounded in a long-term commitment to young athletes that does not waver with variations in form.

"National Lottery funding is all about reaching a standard and staying there, and you come off it if you mess up or if you get an injury, which is very hard to stay clear of in this sport," says Holmes, whose own career was a traumatic testament to the truth of that fact.

"So that is often when athletes really need support, they don't get it and they are dropped from the programme. But if they are good enough to make the team, why are we getting rid of them?"

What Holmes and her team are able to offer, thanks largely to the sponsorship of Aviva, is what they term "a different intervention" - a longer-term pattern of support for athletes as they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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At the end of the presentation, Holmes took the opportunity to make some presentations to the eight star pupils who had been chosen in supporting roles. Athlete of the Year, not surprisingly, went to Hannah England, who came from seventh to second in the final straight to win an 800m world silver medal in Daegu.

When England turned up with 14 others to the very first trial organised by On Camp With Kelly she clearly had plenty to offer. Alison Rose, the physio whom Holmes always says deserves a gold medal for keeping her clear of significant injury in the preparation for her annus mirabilis of 2004, says that of the group, England was one of the two in the group who appeared most capable of making the grade in physical and physiological terms.

But the future world silver medallist didn't make the grade. Holmes knew they were all talented - that was why they were there. So she didn't need to see them running. She wanted to see them challenging themselves in the kind of exercises she had long overseen in her position as a PE instructor in the Army - climbing ropes, getting over obstacles, doing shuttles.

She was not convinced that England had enough commitment and maturity. She did not appear determined enough. So when eight athletes were named to go on the first training camp - at Potchefstroom, in South Africa, a couple of months after the Athens Olympics - England was not among them.

But here's the point. England was not discarded. She was kept in the frame. And by the end of 2004 she had done enough to persuade Holmes to let her join up. Her course was set.

"It was gutting not to make the trip to Potchefstroom," England told insidethegames. "So I thought, 'Right, how am I going to prove myself as an athlete so Kelly does include me?'"

The challenge had been laid down, and England responded. Two years later, when she took part in the World Junior Championships in Beijing along with another On Camp runner, Dani Christmas, Holmes went out to China in support.

"I didn't make the final, and I was absolutely devastated," England recalls. "My parents and my coach hadn't been able to get to China. But when I walked off the track, Kelly was there to put her arm around me and take me off for a walk. At times like that, that is what you really need. It's one thing having your parents, but Kelly was someone who had been there before herself and knew the kind of thing I was feeling."

Three years later the "intervention" was of a harsher nature as Holmes had a forthright discussion with England after she had just missed out on a place at the Berlin World Championships having failed to secure one of the two automatic qualifying places at the trials by one position. Exactly the same thing had happened to her with selection for the Beijing Olympics the previous year. England won the 2010 trials. And the 2011 trials, before going on to glory in Daegu. Her focus for next year? She isn't talking about London 2012. She's talking about winning the Olympic trials.

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The same year that England was running in the Beijing world juniors, another, younger runner was emerging to prominence in the northeast. At 16, Stacey Smith (pictured front) was a silver medallist at the English Schools inter 800m, and had just won a bronze at a home international meeting in Glasgow. However, she decided to give up.

"I was too young," she recalls. "I think that's what it was. I wasn't mentally tough. I wasn't ready for it. I went to a very normal school and all my friends were going out. I found I couldn't do those sorts of things. I had to be in bed early, I had to be up early training. I was even missing out on shopping trips and going to the cinema. I just wanted to be normal and to fit in.

"So I quit in August 2006. Didn't do a thing. But I got a letter off Kelly in February 2007 saying 'I think you are a wasted talent and I would like to invite you to a selection day at Birmingham.' When you think of someone like that saying that to me - it really shocked me."

Smith went to the Birmingham training day, and then to a training camp in at Loughborough. She joined the On Camp set-up in 2007, and within a year she was English Schools senior 800m silver medallist.

Now coached by Mick Woods - who is guiding the careers of a cluster of highly talented runners including former world junior 1500m champion and 2008 Olympian Steph Twell, Charlotte Purdue and fellow On Camp runner Emma Pallant - Smith has won national 1500m titles at under-20 and under 23 level, and this year became senior UK indoor 1,500m champion. In 2012, this Gateshead Harrier wants to qualify for a big event that will be taking place in London.

The press event concluded with a specially made film featuring Holmes and some of her leading athletes running together on the track. She added with a grin afterwards that making the film had been hard work - particularly for her, as she strove to keep up with the youngsters around her.

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At 41, Holmes still looks like an elite athlete, but she has to grudgingly acknowledge she no longer runs like one. "I don't mind," she says. "I can still beat them in the gym exercises."

It's the final lesson for the On Camp girls - to succeed in world athletics, you need to be competitive to your core.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.