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Sally Gunnell on sport in family life and some of her favourite places in Sussex

PUBLISHED: 10:13 15 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:57 03 November 2017

Sally Gunnell © WENN Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Sally Gunnell © WENN Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

© WENN Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Sally Gunnell lives in Steyning and the record-breaking athlete shows no signs of slowing down, finds Jenny Mark-Bell

Twenty years before Jessica Ennis-Hill became the British heroine of London 2012, another young athlete stormed her way to Olympic gold and into the hearts of the nation. Sally Gunnell OBE was 26 when she won the women’s 400m hurdles in Barcelona. She later added the European, World and Commonwealth titles to her CV.

Sally, who lives in Steyning with her husband, athletics coach Jon Bigg and their sons Luca, Finley and Marley, shows no signs of slowing down.

Sport is a major part of family life – Jon’s elite group, who train around their West Sussex home, includes promising young athlete Charlie Grice. “Through them I am still very much involved in the coaching side of it,” says Sally. “That keeps me in touch with the athletics world.”

Sally is also seeing the world she knows so well through new eyes, as she takes her son Finley, 17, to compete – he does the 400m and 800m events. “I actually get quite nervous,” she says. “The other two boys laugh at me.”

After retiring from athletics Sally forged a successful career as a motivational speaker and she does a lot of corporate health and wellbeing work. She is also a Deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex, sits on the board of Sport England and supports many health and fitness initiatives.

A champion herself, she is remarkably pragmatic about fitness. “What we try and do is adapt it into people’s lifestyles: perhaps they’re busy parents travelling up to London on the tube or on the train – it has to be realistic. We talk about how small change can actually make a big difference: if you have only got 10 minutes to do some sit ups or whatever it may be that’s great, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

As her own life has changed, so has Sally’s own attitude towards exercise: “Obviously my job then was to run but now it’s purely for my own benefit: I shout less at the kids and I’m a better mum if I go out for a run, plus I have to control my weight. The type of exercise is different day in day out – it takes more time and sometimes I don’t do much because I’m working. If the weather’s nice I get out on my bike and when I had a bad back I did pilates in Hove. I like the social side of exercise as well: I like a bike ride stopping off for coffee somewhere, whereas my husband is just ‘head down, get it done’. We [women] don’t want it to be challenging and competitive, we quite like the social element.”

Sally grew up on her parent’s farm in Essex, so rural life is quite important to her. Although family life is busy and full of activity, even an Olympic gold medallist struggles to lever her children off the sofa and off the PS4, apparently! “They are sporty but they also love sitting around and being lazy, so I have to encourage them,” says Sally.

If the family is celebrating a special birthday they might indulge in a trip to Gar’s Chinese in Brighton’s Lanes – a long-standing favourite – or The Salt Room, where they recently celebrated a milestone birthday for Sally’s father.

For a less formal occasion, The Fountain Inn in Ashurst is popular: “If we are on the way back from London we’ll pop in. It’s great for kids so it’s a last minute thing – ‘let’s go up to the pub and grab some food’.”

Sally loves shopping for clothes and says her chosen destination would be “anything in Brighton. I love going into Churchill Square and doing the odd mad shop in Topshop or Zara. The next minute I’ll be going around some of the boutique shops around the old part of the Lanes.”


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