Her success, by her own admission, was down to a firm grip over her own mind and a lot of very hard graft…
Sally started her athletic life as a pentathlete and long jumper with the Essex Ladies’ club. Her explosive power made her a decent junior sprinter and she soon began to concentrate on the 100m hurdles.
Gold at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games of 1986 seemed to confirm Gunnell’s prowess at sprint hurdling, but by 1987 she was being encouraged to look at longer distances. In 1989, she took Gold at the European Cup 400m flat race in Gateshead; her speed endurance and mental toughness were becoming apparent. By 1990, she was hurdling again – with great success. She won the 1990 Commonwealth Games 400m hurdles title in Auckland; Gunnell had found her perfect event and grew rapidly in stature.
Tokyo’s 1991 World Championships could so easily have brought her the Gold medal; in the lead at the penultimate hurdle, she glanced across at one of her rivals. That uncharacteristic split second of mental diversion left her with the Silver and a burning sense of disappointment. Gunnell returned to the track’s biggest stage in 1992; the Barcelona Olympics. Months of hard graft paid off and she progressed to the 400m hurdles final without incident. An indifferent start to the biggest race of her life was soon forgotten as she engaged the Gunnell afterburner to blow away her rivals in the last 150 metres. Olympic Gold and a place in history were hers.
But Gunnell was not finished yet. She worked even harder during the off-season of 1992/3, building in a raft of changes to her nutrition, physical and technical training; nothing was left to chance. Her coach knew exactly how to get her “peaked” in time for the World Championships in Stuttgart and all was going perfectly to plan with a week left. But on arrival in Germany, Gunnell developed a heavy cold. She hid this from her rivals and managed to battle through qualifying and make the final. Such was her state of illness the night before the race that she called a press conference to announce her withdrawal. At the last minute, she had a change of heart and pulled the conference. This proved to be an excellent decision; although feeling well below par, Sally stormed to the Gold, setting a new World Record in the process.
Although her later career was blighted by injury, eventually coming to an end in 1997, Gunnell’s achievements in ’92 and ’93 assured her place in the history books. No other woman has held Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic track titles concurrently and although her world record has been broken by American athlete Kim Batten, her Stuttgart time remains a British record.
On retirement, Sally became part of the BBC Sport team and was a regular fixture on Athletics programmes during the 00s, interviewing athletes on the finish line and bringing the trackside atmosphere to millions of living rooms across the UK. She has appeared in numerous TV shows including A Question of Sport and Total Wipeout. She is a regular on the Breakfast News sofa and conducts hundreds of radio interviews each year.
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