Sally Gunnell became the golden girl at the Barcelona Olympics with her 400m hurdles win. A year later she became World Champion and smashed the world record. Her fierce competitiveness and sunny personality on screen have made her a household name.
Sally revealed how it felt to win Olympic gold, the pressure at the top, how she banished self doubt and why she’s looking forward to watching the wildcard winners at London 2012.
Athletics is the main sport of the Olympics. There’s nothing like seeing who wins the 100m, just that pressure, you can live it and feel it and that comes across on television like no other sport. The track athletes who win gold medals will probably outshine all the other medalists. That’s where athletics is in people’s minds, they really grasp all that tension and determination.
Winning my Olympic gold medal was definitely my career highlight. It changed my life and it’s never gone away, everyone remembers it. It was a dream I had since I was 14 years old. It’s the ultimate in every sporting person’s career.
If you get to the final at an Olympic games, anybody can win. Something happens at the Olympics, it’s not often the favourites who win or the ones you expect. If any British person gets into a final at any event, who knows what could happen.
I remember watching Linford Christie win the 100m in Barcelona the day before my event. It really spurred me on. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to let him have all the glory, I want a bit of that”.
It took weeks, months, for it to sink in after winning Olympic gold. I really couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking it was going to go away. Your life changes over night and you’re caught up in this conveyor belt of so many exciting things. I remember trying to race as well, which was almost impossible. It took a couple of months until I finally thought, “Right, okay you’ve done it, this is amazing and let’s get on”.
Once I started winter training I knuckled down again. Then you’re training scared, because you’re worried you’re not going to be the athlete that you were. I remember thinking, “Oh god I don’t want to fail next year, I still want to go out and prove myself”.
Being the favourite going in to races is a different situation. It’s a lot harder but when it pays off and you win titles and break world records it’s all worth it. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re dealing with those sorts of situations.
One of the reasons I retired was that I’d had enough of that sort of pressure. I wanted to do other things in life. It is hard to keep going out there and performing in each race, especially when everybody expects you to win every time.
I coped with that pressure by putting my thoughts in the right place. I’d think, “Why can’t I stay the best in the world and I reckon I can run faster”. So much of running is controlling the mind and those sorts of negative thoughts and doubts that so easily come in.
There was a massive rivalry with Sandra Farmer-Patrick. We had a lot of respect for each other but we weren’t the best of buddies, we didn’t exactly talk much. I wouldn’t have run as fast if she hasn’t been there, she really spurred me on. On the dark horrible days of training, what would always get me out of the door was the thought of her training or having a good session
The Olympians who inspired me were Daley Thompson in Moscow, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett and Shirley Strong in 1984 winning the silver medal in the hurdles. I was also a real Edwin Moses fan.
This summer I’m looking forward to watching Jess Ennis compete. It’s going to be hard for her, as she’s got some good competition but it’s great to see her in good shape. The two hurdlers, Dai Greene and Perri Shakes-Drayton are also in for a chance.
I’ve got tickets to Mo Farah’s 10,000m, I’m really excited about that.
I race now with friends or I do charity events, and it’s very different to when I used to compete. I don’t feel as if I’ve got anything to prove, I just want to enjoy them. When I was competing it was eyes down and it was all about winning. Whereas now I’ll go with a friend who’s never run before and I’ll get much more enjoyment running with her, looking around and enjoying the moment, rather than going out to see how fast I can run.
When I go to events, the most common question I get asked is how people can get the most out of themselves. So many people want to lead healthier lifestyles and they’re not sure how or what to do. I think that’s the nicest position you’re in as an Olympic champion to be able to pass on information and help people in that way.
Coach: Bruce Longden
Club: Essex Ladies
1994 – European Championships, 400m hurdles gold
1993 – World Championships, 400m hurdles gold, 4x400m relay bronze
1992 – Barcelona Olympics, 400m hurdles gold, 4x400m relay bronze
1991 – World Championships, 400m hurdles silver
1989 – European Indoor Championships, 400m gold
1986 – Commonwealth Games, 100m hurdles gold
Sally has joined forces with Sport England and cruise line Royal Caribbean on a new campaign to get more people involved in running. The new running groups see individuals take part in a 12-week programme designed to improve their health and fitness in a fun and supportive environment. Find out more.