Keely Hodgkinson: ‘Is it ridiculous for me to win a medal? I don’t think so’

“Is it stupidly ridiculous for me to win an Olympic medal?” asks Keely Hodgkinson, smiling as she allows the question to marinate. “I don’t think so.” And then, with a fearlessness that has become her trademark, Britain’s brightest teenage track star explains why. “I’ve proven myself this year. When I go into a race I want to win regardless of who’s in it. And anything can happen in championship racing.”

Hodgkinson knows it will be tough to emulate Kelly Holmes, the last middle distance athlete to win an 800m Olympic medal for Britain in 2004. Then again, it has been a staggering year already. She started in 2021 not even on lottery funding. But in March, just four days after she turned 19, she produced a performance of poise and power to become the youngest British winner of a European indoor title for more than 50 years. It was so impressive that Christian Malcolm, the head coach of UK Athletics, immediately tipped her to be at the vanguard of a new wave of British track and field stars.

But she was barely getting started. At the British trials in Manchester in June, she blasted past Laura Muir and Jemma Reekie with an electric 57-second last lap to secure her Olympic place. And in Stockholm a week later she smashed her personal best with a time of 1:57.51 – the eighth-fastest in the world this year.

Holmes, however, was not her hero growing up as she was only two years old in 2004. “You will laugh at this,” she says. “It was actually Tom Daley, because everyone used to fancy him. I was like 10. But my first memory on the track was actually watching Jessica Ennis winning gold in 2012.”

At that age, Hodgkinson preferred swimming to running, even though her dad would always tell her she was better on the track. “I competed for my school in swimming and I thought I was really good,” she says. “But me and my dad would always have the same argument. He’d tell me that I was a better runner, and I’d get really offended and be like, ‘oh so you think I’m a bad swimmer,’ even though he wasn’t even saying that. I was just stubborn. But eventually I went down to my local club and started to gravitate towards athletics.”

There was a period, though, in her early teens when she was unable to run at all due to a tumour which has left her deaf in one ear. “It had grown for 10 years and no one had spotted it,” she explains. “And it was so close to my nervous system that I could have had facial palsy if it had touched the nerve. So it was a bit risky getting it out.

“It wasn’t cancerous or anything,” she adds. “But because of how fragile it was, due to the spinal cord, it meant that I couldn’t walk too fast and it was a very long process back. Now it is more annoying because I’m 95% deaf in one ear. So when people are wearing masks and are talking I struggle – it’s made me realise how much I rely on lip reading.”

Hodgkinson reserves particular praise for her coaches, Trevor Painter and Jenny Meadows, for guiding her through so expertly for the past two years. “We just fit really well,” she says. “The energy is good, the vibe is good. And Trevor is not only a great coach but knows exactly where all the good races are – while Jenny has won so many 800m medals over the years and has had every sort of race experience. And they’ve got the cutest little baby girl, who I sometimes look after on training camps. It’s great.”

Another guiding force has been the millionaire businessman Barrie Wells, who spent £2m funding Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Jessica Ennis-Hill and others to reach their potential before and after London 2012.

Wells had stopped helping athletes to instead focus on his Box4Kids scheme, which has taken nearly 10,000 seriously ill children to enjoy VIP treatment in a special box at sporting events. However, he was so impressed with Hodgkinson he reached out after discovering she was not receiving lottery funding.

Could he have another medal winner on his hands? “Yes,” he replies. “Keely has such incredible natural talent. In training she does 200m in 24 seconds which is so quick for an 800m runner. But she has an endurance background too. And she has this extraordinary tactical awareness, especially for someone who is just 19.”

Wells promised Hodgkinson that if she ran a 1:58.30 he would let her drive his Bentley. Recently he also asked her what her one wish would be. “I told him I’d really like to drive that Aston Martin in the James Bond film from the ’50s. I just love vintage cars. My dream car is the 65 Ford Mustang convertible. One day I’m getting one.”

She has also promised herself she will get a fourth tattoo – one representing Tokyo – to go with the heart, her star sign and some stars to represent her grandparents.

Before that though she has more pressing concerns on her mind. “The first job is to get to the Olympic final,” she says. “That’s going to be hard enough because it’s so stacked. But then once you’re there, any one of us has a chance – and anything is possible.”

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