“Are you Sally Gunnell?”
My son had qualified for the National Schools Cross Country championships in 2009, and I had walked across to a remote corner of the course to cheer him on, when I thought I recognised a lady standing there.
“Yes, I am.”
I took the liberty of thanking her for all the excitement she’d given athletics fans like me over the years, then we chatted about that day’s races and about her and Linford Christie and Colin Jackson – the big three of British athletics in the early 1990s. She was there supporting her own son who was running the same race as mine, and then she said something that was very revealing.
“You know, I am having absolute kittens standing here watching my son. I can’t even imagine what my mum and dad went through in Barcelona.”
Sally Gunnell, from Essex, made her name at 100 metres hurdles, indeed she was Commonwealth champion in 1986, but perhaps realising her limitations at world level at the shorter distance, she switched to 400 hurdles in 1987. She progressed quickly and set British records at both distances in 1988, coming fifth at the longer event in the Seoul Olympics.
She worked hard and sacrificed a lot. Her birthday is 29th July, often falling in the middle of a major championship. I remember hearing that she allowed herself just one small glass of wine by way of celebration, when it did.
By the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, she was ready to fly.
How nervous were her parents? How nervous was she? Very is the answer, and it’s understandable not just because it’s an Olympic final and you want to perform to your potential. I think, in addition, that the 400 hurdles is unique in requiring the athlete to perform technically difficult manoeuvres whilst experiencing increasing levels of lactic acid and therefore fatigue. (This is perhaps why Ed Moses was so revered.)
One can imagine the feelings going through her mind – I have to get every single hurdle perfect – and I know it’s going to blooming well hurt.
She was only ranked third going into the Olympics, but she fought off the challenge of American Sandra Farmer-Patrick and won gold, repeating the victory in the next year’s World Championships in Stuttgart – this time with a world record. She completed a remarkable set in 1994 by winning Commonwealth and European golds.
Linford got Olympic and world golds, but not the world record. Colin achieved world golds and the world record, but no Olympic win. Sally did the lot.