DOUBLE Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes DBE served with the British Army for nearly ten years before becoming an elite athlete. We caught up with Kelly to talk about her military life and the importance of good mental health and wellbeing…
Congratulations on becoming the first ever Honorary Colonel of the Royal Armoured Corps Training Regiment. How important is it to you to maintain your military connections?
I’m really honoured to receive this accolade because I’m proud of my former career as an HGV driver and Physical Training Instructor. Having wanted to go in the Army since the age of 14, and joining just before 18, I’d achieved that ambition.
Were you from a military family?
I was the first person in my family to ever want to join. It was after I’d been shown a video in school. It gave me a sense of wanting to do something for myself. My mum and step dad were very supportive.
How much did your Army career spur you on to success on the track?
Coming back into international athletics during my career, the Army helped me with the discipline required, with respecting myself and others I was competing against, and with proving to myself that I can achieve what I set out to achieve and that was to be Olympic champion. Being in the Forces gives you a strength of character that I wouldn’t have had when I joined.
Did the skills that you learnt in the Army, such as resilience and determination, help you through those big sporting events?
Definitely. They give you that sense of purpose. You grow up quickly in the Army, so you learn to cope with things at a younger age. Resilience is one word that I would take throughout my whole life and pass on to other people. It’s easier to give up and not as easy to stay focused and strong. Resilience helps you do that.
What was Army life like when women weren’t allowed to serve on the front line?
I joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps, so I didn’t know any different, but now all roles will be open to women to take up as a career. This has made a massive change in how women feel moving forward in life and progressing in military roles. If some of these were available when I was a kid I would have taken them up, especially as I’ve now been attached to The Royal Armoured Corps.
You’ve had your ups and downs during your career. How easy did you find it to open up about emotional wellbeing?
I didn’t talk to anyone when I was struggling with my mental health. Leading up to the Athens Olympic Games when I self-harmed, I would try to cover it up with makeup, plasters, clothes. I used to keep it all to myself. My family and friends were in the dark. It wasn’t until I got asked to write my autobiography that I let people in on that part of my life, telling them about the state of my mental health. It really helps to talk about it. I’ve just recorded a podcast and it looks at the lives of ten people in the public eye who have gone through mental health struggles. We all have a mental health, in the same way that we all have physical health. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. We need to talk about it.
How much does sport play a part in wellbeing?
Leading an active lifestyle is a must for everybody as it helps with emotional and physical wellbeing. The adrenalin, the endorphins, everything you get from sport, does have a positive impact. Apart from feeling healthier, sometimes the freedom I get when I go out running helps on those days when you don’t feel 100 per cent.
How would you encourage families new to Army life into sport?
It’s important that families can have a connection and that could be through sport as it gives opportunities to travel, support one another and have the feel-good factor of ‘I’ve done it’. Sport isn’t about reaching the elite level. It’s about having the courage to take part, and that has a positive effect on your wellbeing.
Is there anything in particular you would like to achieve in your role as Honorary Colonel?
Through my role I hope to be a voice and advocate for equality and diversity, and to encourage women to have the confidence to take up the roles that are open to them. The Army is no longer just for men. They’ll support maternity leave and flexible working and I think it’s a great place to not only build a career but teach values that you can pass on.
You are very supportive of the Army. Do you keep in touch with old comrades?
I still have some fantastic friends that I served with and they are friends you will never ever lose because you have a common ground. Not many people have that.