The 400 metres hurdles are one of the most challenging races of all. Still, a wealth of athletic ability combined with total commitment saw Sally Gunnell win Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles and break the world record.
She became one of Britain’s best-loved athletes, and it was a blow to her many fans when she announced her retirement following a long struggle with injuries.
But although Sally knew she would miss the buzz of taking on and beating the world-class competition, she regarded it as the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in her life.
Until she stepped back from competitive athletics, the enormous commitment and strict discipline required to be a world-beater had been at the heart of her existence since she was a teenager. Running came naturally to her from a very early age, growing up on her parents’ busy working farm.
“I was born on the farm and grew up there,” she recalls. “All my early days were spent running around the fields. It was great. I learnt to drive a tractor when I was 13.
“Athletics didn’t run in the family although mum and dad loved running, hockey and football when they were at school.
“I was about 12 years old when running seriously began for me when I joined a club. I had a natural talent for it, and I think my parents’ solid work ethic has always played a big part in helping me cope with a strict training regime.
“I got spotted by a coach when I was 14, and my parents gave me lots of encouragement and were very supportive, driving me up to Crystal Palace two or three times a week in the evenings and coming to watch me training or taking part in events.”
Sally became an accomplished long jumper and heptathlete and in 1984 narrowly missed Olympic selection at both heptathlon and in the 100 metres hurdles where she had set a UK junior record.
“I had quite a lot of success in multi-events, but when I missed out on being chosen as a heptathlete for the Olympics, I realised that maybe 100m hurdles were my strongest event and I might have been selected for if I had focused on that.
“I spent two years specialising in 100m hurdles and won my first major championship when I was 20 years old. Then my coach asked me if I wanted to be the best in the world at 400m. He said it was a killer event and it was up to me if I wanted to settle for just being best in the UK and the Commonwealth.
“I decided to go for it, and in my first couple of races at 400m, I beat the British record. I just moved ahead from there. I think my basic development as an athlete and my experience in multi-events gave me a great advantage.
“By 1991, I knew I had done the right thing, and I set my sights on the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I had come second in the World Championships and thought I should have won that, but I knew I’d made mistakes and hadn’t had enough belief in myself.
“My coach called in a sports psychologist who taught me how to prepare for a big event, how to deal with nerves and how to stay positive. That gave me the confidence to deliver on the day.
“Winning gold at Barcelona was the ultimate, something I had dreamed of since I was 14. Standing on that rostrum to get my gold medal was amazing, my dream come true.”
Two years later, in 1994, Sally won the European title, successfully defended her Commonwealth title and won the World Cup title in London, but sadly this was to be her final year as world number one.
She missed most of 1995 due to injury and defence of her Olympic title in Atlanta in 1996 was cut short when she pulled up injured in the semi-finals.
In September 1997 she retired after a recurrence of an Achilles tendon injury forced her to pull out of the semi-final of the World Championships.
“I realised I didn’t want to end on that note, keeping on trying to come back. It was hard to accept, but I called a press conference and announced I was retiring. It was a difficult thing to do, but in fact, it was the biggest relief, and I was very excited about lots of projects I had been asked to get involved with. I knew I would be putting my energies into a new chapter of my life. I was also ready to start a family.
“It was hard to step back from something which had been such a massive part of my life until then. You get a fantastic buzz when things are going right, but many people never had the opportunity to get that, and I feel very fortunate that I did experience it.
“Retiring also gave me freedom from the strict discipline I’d had to stick to from such a young age. For the first time, I could go skiing or go-karting!”
Sally is married to fellow athlete Jonathan Bigg, and they have made their family home in Sussex where they live with their three sons, Finley, Luca and Marley.
Sally still regards fitness as an essential part of the daily regime, although nowadays it is mostly about health and wellbeing.
“I run a bit, go out on my bike, swim in the sea, do pilates. I feel it’s essential to start every day with some exercise. But it’s more about how it makes you feel rather than having an end goal.”
All three of her sons run, and as they get older, they appreciate more and more that Sally isn’t just Mum, but a world-beater and the tremendous dedication needed to achieve such a status.
“The other day my oldest son was quite proud of the time he had achieved over a flat 400 metres,” Sally says with a smile. “Then he realised that I’d gone faster at that distance over hurdles and he could appreciate what it takes to get there.”
Sally was awarded an MBE in 1993 and an OBE in 1998.
“I was shocked and honoured to receive those awards, but I do a lot now to encourage young athletes and find it amazing that after so many years, people still remember what I achieved and look on me as an inspiration. That is lovely.
“So much of anyone’s success as an athlete is about self-belief. It’s beautiful when it goes right, but it hurts when it goes wrong, and you have to force yourself to keep going. Everyone needs a role model – my parents were massive role models for me.
“I do a lot of corporate events, talks and workshops, about a healthier lifestyle, wellbeing, good nutrition and mental health.
“Because of COVID, a lot of my talks now are virtual, helping people get back to work. Many people have lost their confidence during the lockdown.
“COVID has posed a lot of problems for athletes, with clubs being closed and training disrupted. It can be challenging to stay motivated, and it isn’t just the immediate effects they’re struggling with but also the long-term.
“I’m running clubs on social media. It’s a different way of doing things, but it can be very valuable for youngsters. I can also give one-to-one coaching.
“For athletes who would have been working towards big events that are being cancelled. I encourage them to stay positive, to look upon 2020 as a rest year and the chance to try something different in their training.
“The hardest thing will be if the Tokyo Olympics don’t happen and some people will miss their moment. I was so lucky to have my special moments.” •