Interview with Olympian Sally Gunnell

PUBLISHED: 01:16 01 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:34 20 February 2013

Interview with Olympian Sally Gunnell

Interview with Olympian Sally Gunnell

Ahead of London 2012, Olympic hurdling champion Sally Gunnell spells out the dedication it takes to beat the best, and reveals why her Steyning home has always been her sanctuary. Interview by Angela Wintle

Champion Olympic hurdler Sally Gunnell is under no illusions about the pressures our medal hopefuls will be facing at London 2012, but believes competing on their home turf will give them a distinct advantage.

Any Briton who makes a final, stands a better chance of doing something really special because of the unique circumstances, she says. The crowd could make the vital difference.

She remembers the stresses of competing at the highest level only too well, however. There are favourites to win, but being an Olympic champion is about how you deal with pressure and the knowledge that everyone in that stadium will be watching you.

Mind you, you can turn nerves to your advantage. I found the build up to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 incredibly daunting. But with just a couple of months to go, something changed in my mind and I thought Bring it on. I knew Id done everything right in training and it was a case of Lets get this thing done.

Sallys confidence wasnt misplaced and she blew away her rivals in the final straight of the 400m hurdles, adding an all-important Olympic gold to her swelling trophy cabinet.

But even now she struggles to describe the euphoria she felt. I felt overwhelming, uncontainable joy a feeling I wanted to treasure forever. I watch that race now with disbelief and dont know how I did it. But at the time, I didnt really know what it meant. Even at the Olympics, youre always on to the next thing and it means more to me now. Ive also realised more than ever this year just how many people remember that race. Twenty years on, people are still talking about it!

Sally, 45, is speaking from the converted Sussex farmhouse near Steyning she shares with her husband Jon and their three sons Finley, 13, Luca, 11, and Marley, seven. When we moved to Sussex 25 years ago, we settled in the centre of Brighton, which we loved. But eventually we were drawn out to
the country.

In my athletics days, this house was my sanctuary and it still is. Its where I unwind. And I like nothing better than sitting beside our pond with a glass of wine or a coffee, watching the kids. Its an idyllic spot, set in 12 sprawling acres, and weve really embraced country life. Weve got an Aga, chickens we even grow our own vegetables.

Its home from home for Sally, who grew up on a farm in Chigwell, Essex, which proved the perfect training ground for her future sporting career. It was a good working farm with plenty of mud, just six miles from where the Olympic village is now, she says. When my dad, Les, was up in the field on the tractor, Id run and take him a flask. And at harvest time, Id run behind the combine where the straw came out and hurdle the rows, practising my stride patterns in wellies.

Dad would get up at 5am to milk the cows, but later hed still drive me to Crystal Palace and wouldnt get home until nine in the evening. Mum, too, was always washing, taking deliveries and running us around. Seeing them work so hard, giving their life to something, taught me that you have to put the time in if you want to achieve anything in life.

Sally started out on the athletics circuit as a long jumper and pentathlete, before switching to the 400m hurdles where she quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with.

Winning Olympic gold changed her life overnight, but she wasnt finished yet. She trained harder than ever for the World Championships in Stuttgart the following year, though disaster struck on the eve of the tournament when she went down with a heavy cold. She considered pulling out, but changed her mind at the eleventh hour.

I learnt a lot about myself during those championships. I had 48 hours to decide what to do and sat down with my team to talk through the implications. I felt I had a lot to lose if I didnt repeat my Olympic triumph, but I needed to know if I could still do it so I decided to press ahead, whatever.

At the start of that race, I was full of negative thoughts, but when the starting pistol went off my mind went blank and I performed like a robot. The gamble paid off. Not only did she storm to victory, but she set a world record in the process.

Although her later career was blighted by injury, her achievements in 1992 and 1993 assured her a place in the history books. No other woman has held Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic track titles concurrently, and although her world record has since been broken by American athlete Kim Batten, her Stuttgart time remains a British record.

She credits much of her success to her husband, Jonathan Bigg, whom she met at an athletics meeting when she was just 19. He was the backbone throughout my career. He understood high-level athletics because he was there at the same time [representing England as an 800m runner in junior athletics]. He also kept my feet on the ground, telling me I was only as good as my last race and making me feel guilty when I didnt train.

When Sally retired in 1997, she joined the BBC Sport team, tasked with interviewing athletes on the finishing line at major championships. She quit in 2006, but has since appeared on numerous TV shows, from A Question of Sport to Total Wipeout. Becoming a mum has been her defining role, though. During my sporting career, my focus was all me, but that changed as soon as I had children, she laughs.

The boys arent really aware of my Olympic achievements. To them Im just Mum. Theyve seen me on videos, but thats about the extent of it. Besides, Finley and Luca can outrun me, so they dont see what the fuss is about! Football is their passion and the eldest boys are in football academies. But who knows? Maybe well bring them back to track and field!

Sally cheerfully admits shes not as fit as she once was, though she still exercises regularly. When I was training, it was full on, six hours every day. I still keep active, but now its on my own terms and I often head out with other local mums for a 60-minute run on the South Downs. Many people dont get it they think Im out to win every race but the health and wellbeing benefits are what drive me now. Im a much happier and calmer person when Ive been out, even if its just for
20 minutes.

A passionate supporter of initiatives that encourage families to be more active, she also runs her own motivational business, promoting health and wellbeing within companies. It was these skills which led to her recent appointment as a Deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex, a role in which she will help promote a healthy and active lifestyle, as well as assisting with royal visits to the county.

With the Olympics fast approaching, its an exciting time to be taking up the role and it shows its not just landowners and local people who get the honour, but those who can make a difference and be a voice in the community, she says.

Over the coming weeks, however, Sallys sights will be firmly fixed on London 2012. Im enormously excited and think its great that so many people in the UK will be able to experience it. As an ambassador for Team GB, Ill be pretty busy over Olympics fortnight popping up on Sky Sports News, liaising with sponsors and working with our athletes and their families.

Best of all though, Ill be relishing the chance to watch some athletics events and spend an evening in the stadium with my family.

To find out more about Sally Gunnell Healthy Living and her motivational talks, visit

My favourite Sussex

Restaurant: Gars Chinese Restaurant in Prince Albert Street, Brighton. Its the first restaurant we visited when we moved to Brighton and we always go there for special occasions. The food is excellent and we know all the staff.

Pub: The Fountain Inn at Ashurst. We go there a lot and its particularly cosy in winter when they light a crackling fire. They also serve great pub grub.

Shops: Mottoo in Duke Street, Brighton an independent fashion boutique selling quirky designer clothes. I also love the Sussex Produce Company in Steyning High Street because their fruit and veg is so fresh.

View: From the top of the Downs at Chanctonbury Ring near Steyning. We love walking there with the kids or biking up there with friends, armed with a warming flask of coffee. I also head there when I go running.

Place to visit: Cuckmere Haven. The meandering river is beautiful and its a wonderful place to take a walk. Were always drawn back.

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