The woman who beat injury and depression to win two Olympic golds has a new challenge: convincing east London's businesses to get on the regeneration bandwagon for the 2012 Games. Emily Wright met her.
Dame Kelly Holmes is best known for her speed on the track. And she must be good because she has even mastered the art of running in stilettos. This is not a skill to be underestimated: most attempts result in a broken ankle or, at the very least, a broken heel. But as the winner of two Olympic gold medals rushes between journalists, television crews, radio reporters and photographers at an event in east London, she looks like she has been sprinting in a pair of Jimmy Choos all her life.
Holmes is the star attraction at Building Business, an event held in the Chainstore, London's only lighthouse, and she's been stuck in traffic for the past hour. The gathering is designed to inform east London's small businesses about how they can benefit from the multimillion-pound regeneration of the Thames Gateway. And it soon becomes clear that the 36-year-old is a force to be reckoned with, despite her 5 ft 1 in frame. She talks so passionately that it is almost impossible not to have faith in what she is saying. Which is that "the London Olympics will be the best ever, and the Games will revamp an area of London in dire need of regeneration. Failure is not an option in either case. We're Great Britain and we absolutely will do this".
From the age of 12, Holmes had one overriding ambition: to become an Olympic champion. Athens 2004 was her third Games, and her last chance to win a medal. In the lead-up to it she developed injuries, fell into depression and even began to self-harm. As we now know, Holmes' struggle ended in triumph when she became the third woman in history to win the 800 m and 1500 m.
Holmes announced her retirement from athletics in December 2005 but has remained heavily involved in the sporting world and has been a key supporter of the London Olympics.
She is genuinely excited by regeneration. At the Building Business event, she doesn't complain once about having to struggle through gale force winds to fit in seven interviews on the subject. She is full of energy and enthusiasm, hoping her speech will inspire businesses to get involved in helping to create a proper infrastructure in east London.
There could be no better example of how badly the area needs renewal than the landscape surrounding the Dagenham venue for the event. The derelict buildings, boarded-up windows and littered streets are bleak indeed. The hope is that by 2012 the area will have been transformed, and that by 2016, the district will have 120,000 new homes and 180,000 new jobs - all thanks to the Olympic legacy.
The London Olympics will be the best ever, and the Games will revamp an area in dire need of regeneration. Failure is not an option
Huddled at the top of the lighthouse overlooking the swirling, murky Thames, as the winds cause the whole structure to sway, Holmes explains what regeneration means to her and how she thinks she can motivate small businesses to get involved with development.
The Olympics are about more than just two fantastic weeks of sport, she insists. "Having the Olympics is going to bring so much infrastructure. It's going to provide a legacy of housing, facilities, buildings and businesses."
Holmes hopes people won't shy away from the event just because they are not involved in the sports side. "It's not just about those who participate, as obviously that is a very, very small percentage. Everyone should feel a
part of it, particularly those involved in regeneration. These people are going to be making sure that the Games leave behind change, hope and opportunity. What an amazing thing to be a part of."
Holmes' drive makes her the perfect choice as a motivational speaker. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of Barking and Dagenham council, explains why he is delighted that she has agreed to deliver a speech at the Building Business event. "Dame Kelly is ambitious, determined and passionate, as well as being a rounded person who's clearly interested in seeing advancement. She symbolises all we are trying to achieve for people in this area."
People involved in regeneration are going to be making sure the Games leave behind change, hope and opportunity. What an amazing thing to be part of
Holmes says she will be playing on her own experiences to stir up the audience. "I want to tell my story tonight and show these people how you can always achieve your goals."
She will be trying to put into words how it feels to be part of an Olympic team and believes this is the only incentive people will need to get involved in the run-up to 2012.
"People just don't realise how powerful the Olympic spirit is," she says, moving right to the edge of her seat. "It's going to change people's lives and not just the sportspeople but the developers, fans, supporters, everyone. That feeling is something you don't forget for the rest of your life.
"I want people in Great Britain to know they are going to feel all of this as the whole world descends on us and be motivated by that."
Holmes' role in the 2012 Olympics is changing daily. Her current priorities are to get young people and children excited about the Games and to promote regeneration. But she hopes she will take on a bigger role nearer to the event. And having backed the bid from the beginning, there is one job she has her eye on. "I want to hold that torch and light that damn flame," she laughs. "Even if there are 20 other people holding it, I'd better be on it and all."
As the interview draws to a close, Holmes takes the opportunity to reassure everyone that the Olympics will be a complete success. "We're Great Britain," she almost shouts. "Of course it's going to be the best Olympics ever. There won't be any major problems.
"There is one thing that everyone has to remember whether they are sportspeople, builders and developers or the public. When the Olympics come, the Olympics have to happen." Who would dare to disagree?
What’s on your iPod? Kelly Clarkson.
If money was no object, what would the perfect hotel room include? A spa, a sauna, a jacuzzi and a masseuse.
What’s your favourite city? London, of course.
What do you have an irrational fear of? Drowning. No, hang on, that’s not irrational. People who snore.
What’s been the highlight of your life so far? Achieving my 20-year goal of becoming an Olympic champion … twice.