LORNA Finlayson has never met Dame Kelly Holmes but she has a lot to thank her for and the 23-year-old from Edinburgh isn’t the only one.
One of the beneficiaries of the Olympian’s Get On Track programme which targets the one in five 16-25-year-olds who is not in education, employment or any kind of formal training in the UK and helps them develop their life, work and social skills, she has seen her life turned around.
Thanks to the course, the first of its kind in Scotland, Finlayson and her peers have battled back from a range of personal and career setbacks, including mental health issues, homelessness, low self-esteem, complex home lives, disabilities or simply a lack of direction.
Offering them support as well as role models, like Commonwealth champion judoka Sarah Clark, who led the pilot programme, and others such as boxer Charlie Flynn and judoka Sarah Adlington, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, in conjunction with People’s Postcode Lottery, has presented the youngsters with something every bit as valuable as an Olympic or Commonwealth gold medal – opportunity.
“This programme has had a huge, huge impact on my life,” said Lorna, who suffered from high anxiety and low self-worth. “It has been a very positive influence on my thoughts, feelings and behaviours and it has opened my mind entirely.”
Like many on the course she has had a difficult start, dealing with family mental health issues, homelessness and just when she felt she had turned her life around she lost her job and flat within the same week.
“Going from feeling I had everything on path to losing that stability and being homeless again, I felt like I was back to square one. I felt I had worked so hard and got nowhere and it was hard to realise how quickly your life can change direction and when you don’t have a big support network and no family in Edinburgh, it’s hard to pick yourself back up, especially as my confidence was so low and my attitude at the start was horrible and I was very depressed and anxious.”
But by the time the programme reached its formal conclusion she was able to address a room full of people, encourage others and was back in employment, with new direction and a sense of purpose. “This course has been the key to me turning things around. I have taken the inspiration from the athletes and translated what they say into ways to help me build my self-esteem.”
It is that kind of success story which drives Clark and the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. Holmes grew up on a council estate with her single mum and admits that she struggled at school and it was only when her PE teacher spotted her potential as an athlete that she began to focus, work hard and fulfil her potential. It gave her a feeling of self worth and was the catalyst for her double gold medal success at the 2004 Athens Olympics, which in turn gave her the finance and the clout to be able to set up the trust and find ways to help other young people thrive.
The aim is not to spoon feed success but simply to give them a steer in the right direction and the backing they need to be the best they can be, in sport or in life, and it’s a passion shared by Clark, who led the initial six-month course which started in January and understands the value in sport in channelling energies effectively and inspiring. It has also given her a way to relate to those she has mentored.
“Coaching at Edinburgh judo, which I’m passionate about, I was already working with young people from different backgrounds. Some are disadvantaged backgrounds and others are growing up with all the support they need so there is a cross section,” Clark explained. “But this was another challenge. These young people sit down with me one to one and pour their hearts out and trust me enough to tell me personal things and that was a huge learning curve. I was drawing on my experiences, which I think are quite wide, but I don’t have a typically disadvantaged background. I’ve had a stable family life, supportive parents and apart from a few hundred pounds from my mam and dad when I moved here at 18, I have been able to look after myself financially. I guess my ups and downs have come from failure in my sport.”
Admitting a resumé that documents her medals and titles at British, European and Commonwealth level might not seem like failure to others, for someone who was always driven by the dream of Olympic achievement, it has left Clark with some significant lows to overcome. While injury setbacks have also tested her personal resolve.
“I have had to come to terms with not getting to the goals I set myself and at times I’ve had to reset my goals and start again. That’s my version of adversity and my struggles have come from that. So I draw on those experiences and it’s good for the young people to know that they are not alone. People like Kelly Holmes and me have had to struggle at times as well. But we are the proof that you can turn things around.
“Sometimes its easier to speak to somebody who isn’t that close to you because they see the wider picture and although they see the problems in front of you, unlike someone who is too close to them, they don’t necessarily see them as so big that they are blocking the way. They see what is beyond it.”
With the pilot programme a huge success, People’s Postcode Lottery and the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust will now fund a second in Scotland over the latter half of this year.
Those Athens triumphs over 800m and 1500m secured Holmes a place on the top step of the podium and in the record books. But even more importantly, for someone who has not forgotten what it took to get there, they have given Holmes and the mentors she has recruited the opportunity to pay it forward and help hundreds of thousands of others since.