Where do you go when you’ve reached the pinnacle of your athletic career and won an Olympic gold medal? Deputy editor, Georgina Maric, met our cover star and champion hurdler, Sally Gunnell to find out what she’s up to now…
Had I doubted that I was going to win that day then I certainly wouldn’t have done it,’ says the surprisingly petite Sally Gunnell about her incredible achievement winning gold in the 400m hurdles at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. ‘It was something I’d dreamed about from when I was 14 and watching my first Olympics. I knew then it was what I wanted to achieve as it is the ultimate in any sports person’s career.
‘On the morning of the race, I woke up and knew I was going to win it. You have to feel like that because if you don’t, you will come second. It was my best ever chance and I had to take it on that day because I would never get that opportunity again. I was in the best shape of my life, I knew I could beat the girls who were out there and I knew exactly what I had to do.
‘I was really nervous, petrified, but I’d learned over the years that the more pressure I was under, the better I would run. When I crossed that winning line I knew I had won it, but it didn’t sink in. It was one of those situations when you think “I can’t quite believe this is really happening to me”. You don’t realise what it means and the magnitude of it and when I was standing on the podium I just didn’t feel like I was there. I couldn’t take it all in and I wish now I could just slow it all down so I could remember it. That night I slept with the medal under my pillow because I kept thinking it hadn’t really happened and the medal would disappear, that I’d wake up in the morning to find it had all been a dream.
‘It’s only been in later years that I’ve realised what an achievement it was. People still recognise me today, many of them can remember the moment I won and where they were on that day.’
A different life
Sally will be 46 on 29 July but looks exactly the same as she did in her heyday, brimming with good health, flawless skin – athletic and fit looking, with a neat, toned figure. Today she is with her girlfriends for an ultimate pampering session at a top London hair salon but manages to fit in our interview in between.
‘You don’t know what winning an Olympic gold medal means at the time,’ she continues. ‘But when I look back, my whole life changed overnight. You go from being a nobody to a celebrity but it’s not like you’ve really changed as a person so it can feel a bit strange. There are good parts and bad parts – everyone is lovely when I meet them, but when you have people staring through your windows you have to be able to adjust to that scrutiny and, for me, that was made easier by having really great people around me who continue to keep my feet on the ground. I didn’t get caught up in that celebrity lifestyle, I was just little old me who loved running and that was all I ever wanted to do. I definitely wasn’t one for wearing designer outfits or going to every party and being seen in the right places. That just isn’t me.’
So how did this Essex girl-next-door go from someone who did well at sport at school to being the only woman to hold the European, World, Commonwealth and Olympic 400m hurdle titles all at the same time, a record that still stands now?
Her aptitude for athletics started from a very young age running around the school playground. ‘I found something I was good at and I loved that feeling,’ she said. Sally was encouraged by her PE teacher at primary school, Mrs Kay, who would be there before and after school nurturing sporty children and the secondary school Sally went to was also very sportcentric. ‘I was in every sports team and it was a very important part of growing up. For me, it was finding something that gave me confidence because I wasn’t particularly academic, I struggled in class but sport was an area I felt really confident in and it gave me inner strength to achieve something.
‘From a very young age I began to win junior internationals and I was lucky because the school was extremely understanding, letting me have Fridays off to go to meetings. Looking back, I should have worked harder at school but I was so obsessed with my athletics, it was all I dreamed of doing.’ Fortunately, Sally’s parents were also encouraging. ‘They were both sporty, one of my brothers loved football and the other one wasn’t interested at all but he was very involved in the farm my parents owned. My parents were just there, they never interfered, they’d take me off to meetings, then training and they just let me get on with it. They didn’t question what the coach was doing, but encouraged and supported me.’ So what made Sally go all the way? ‘You have to have natural ability and talent but then there are lots of people who’ve got that who haven’t got any real drive and are quite lazy at the end of the day. I’m lucky that I’m focused. I was prepared to work hard, I had a lot of ambition and looking at things that made me as a person, such as watching my dad work hard on the farm, having two older brothers, it was a competitive household, all those elements came into it.’
At the age of 12, Sally decided to take her passion further so when a friend decided to join athletics club, Essex Ladies, Sally went along with her. ‘Aged 14 I was spotted by a top coach and asked to train at Crystal Palace so I would go up there two to three times a week training with top class athletes. I loved it. It was everything I hoped it would be.’ Starting out as a long jumper at 14, Sally became a heptathlete doing multi events and from the age of 15, when she started hurdling, she was training four or five times a week, going to Crystal Palace three times a week and then spending two days at Essex Ladies. ‘Athletics became my social life. I loved going away at the weekends to compete – especially when I started to get to know everybody and I made really great friends.’
One person who was a big part of Sally’s success was Bruce Longden, the national coach at the time. ‘Throughout my whole career he was a very influential character and I had complete belief in his ability as a coach.’
But her pursuit of sporting success did mean sacrifices. ‘A lot of my athletic friends were giving up and getting Saturday jobs to earn some money and going out finding boyfriends. I did have to make a certain amount of sacrifice, but I had such a good time going on great trips all over Europe and there’d be parties after competing. It was really good fun. I used to hate coming home sometimes because I’d miss everybody.’
Stepping up a gear
Sally left school at 16 and realised that now was the time that she had to train a bit harder. ‘I tried to be more professional about it so I started to get part-time jobs, trying to get companies to sponsor me but it was a difficult time. You take some really big gambles and sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. Having the support of my parents and living at home was a big help. I had a job in a pub at lunch time so I could train in the morning and then again in the afternoon. I’d get £100 here and there from different companies. I was very ballsy really, writing to people saying what I was trying to do and I look back now and think “wow”.
‘I then got a decent job in the research department of an accountancy firm twice a week and they gave me all the time off that I needed. This was crucial as it gave me a lifeline, I knew if it didn’t happen with the athletics then I wouldn’t be out on the streets or back at my parents’ house, I’d be able to pay my rent and that was key for me. I think the company did it for publicity but also for the staff. What I loved was that nobody really understood that one day I’d be running against the best in Zurich and then I’d be back at work and they’d say “ooh you didn’t win then”, even though I’d got a personal best or broken a British record. That’s what kept me down to earth.’
Calling it a day
Four years after Sally took home gold she was competing again at the Atlanta Olympics on her 30th birthday but this time it was a very different outcome. ‘It was my career low when I was carried off the track injured. I’d had an operation on my Achilles tendon the year before and I was trying to make my comeback. When you are the reigning Olympic champion and things don’t quite go to plan, it is really hard. You keep trying and hoping because you believe a medal is in there somewhere but it was a very frustrating and horrid time and a real low point. After that I started to think that it was time to call it a day because I’d done everything I wanted to do, such as break the world record and the European record and I was finding it hard to re-motivate myself after being injured. At the end of the day, you’ve really got to want it.
‘When I got injured again I’d just had enough, I wanted a family, I wanted to do other things with my life. I didn’t really tell anyone else, I just made that decision and that was it. It was a big relief. I fell pregnant quite quickly (having married her childhood sweetheart, fellow athlete, runner Jonathan Bigg in 1992) and so I had to take it a bit easy for the baby, although I carried on jogging.’ Almost straightaway Sally went on to work for the BBC on sporting events.
‘It was great because it kept me in touch with the athletics world. I did it for eight years but in the end, going away every weekend with three boys – Finley, Luca and Marley (now aged 14, 10 and six) – wasn’t working. I remember going away for three weeks with a six-month-old and it wasn’t fair on Jon and it was then that I realised my priorities in life were now different. But I loved covering the major championships – I was the first one to interview Dame Kelly Holmes when she won gold (for 800m) in Athens in 2004. But on other occasions I’d be standing in the pouring rain – they were long days.’
As well as being a BBC employee, Sally also set up her own business. ‘I got into this whole new world and since then I’ve kept reinventing myself. Now both Jon and I and a team of people go out to companies and we look at their health and wellbeing programmes which a lot of companies have but the staff often don’t know about. A lot of employees are very stressed at the moment but companies want to retain good people so they realise they need to look at this and prevent long-term injuries like repetitive strain injury (RSI) as well as helping productivity. That comes from being happy with yourself and being able to deal with everyday life.
‘We have a whole team of people we’ve built up and we look at the diet and exercise of employees and we set up programmes for different people. We work with a selection of the top 100 companies and we encourage people to make small changes because that’s enough to make a difference. The idea for this stemmed from when I was giving motivational speeches and so many people were asking questions about how they could be the best they could be, so we set this company up to be able to answer those questions. It’s going really well.’
O is for Olympics
For the next few weeks Sally will be heavily involved in the Olympics here on home soil. ‘I am an ambassador for the British Olympic Association, one of 20, and we help with the athletes, we will be giving talks and during the Games we will be taking people around and making sure the families of the athletes are alright.
‘I’ll be on Sky Sports News during the Games, doing a bit of punditry and talking about the events happening that day, along with doing corporate business.’
So, what does Sally think about London hosting? ‘The Olympics has to be good for the country, we all saw the excitement around the Jubilee and we love our sport here. We are so passionate about who we are as a nation and we should be, too, because we have so much to show off. I really believe we host great events, we are very good at them and being so involved in the infrastructure has completely blown me away. It is a great site, well set out and the country should be proud of it.’
All too quickly, my time is up and Sally bounds off to catch up with her coiffeured friends, safe in the knowledge that she will forever be remembered for winning a gold medal in an Olympics. Meanwhile, I run off to catch the tube home.