What does it take to become an Olympic champion?
There are a select few who can tell you. But, if you are looking for a British athlete who has held all four major track and field titles simultaneously and set a world record, it’s a pretty exclusive club.
Sally Gunnell won the 400m hurdles title at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. “I don’t really remember much of the race. I just went into auto-pilot,” she says.
A year later, she won the Stuttgart 1993 World Championships in 52.74 seconds, which was the fastest clocking ever recorded at the time. She remains the British record holder and the only female athlete in the aforementioned club which also includes Daley Thompson and Jonathan Edwards.
Three decades on from that invincible period in her life – which also included winning five Commonwealth titles with England – Sally reflects that it took time to build the character and mental strength that was needed.
“All of those early days were very scary, very daunting. I didn’t do particularly well,” says Sally, who believes the fun, sociable club environment at Essex Ladies played a key part in keeping her in the sport.
“I was sort of overwhelmed by the magnitude of some of these big championships. I was definitely not the most positive of juniors by any means. Probably not the most talented at that sort of age, but I look back now and I learnt so much.”
One of the things she says she learnt was to love the pressure. “The more pressure that was on, the better I performed,” Sally reckons.
“The difference from coming fifth in an Olympics in Seoul (1988) to winning or getting medals at that high level is all around the mindset. In a lot of those early days, I used to sit on my bed the night before and I might think about my race. But the difference was I would think about it – before Barcelona – probably 12 months before.”
Video: Sally Gunnell wins 400m Hurdles Gold – Barcelona 1992 Olympics. Watch on YouTube.
Whether an interview or an exam or any stage performance, it’s often good advice to imagine it all going well. Sally tried to visualise herself crossing the line first and imagine what that would feel and look like. But naturally, the final of the greatest sporting event was a little different.
“It was probably the longest day of my whole life,” Sally recalls. “I didn’t sleep particularly well, which is normal, then I just tried to chill and read. I remember thinking ‘I just want this day over and done with’. There was no aspect in there that was like ‘I can’t wait’ or ‘bring it on’.”
Winning was infectious for this wonderful generation of British talent. With Linford Christie having already won his gold medal in the 100m by the time that Sally lined up in the hurdles, she was fired up and determined.
“There was always a part of you that was like ‘if he can do it then I can’, I didn’t want him to have all the glory almost,” she jokes. “I had nothing else I could change. I think that’s a positive place to be. I’d eaten well, I’d trained well, I’d raced up to it and knew what I had to do.”
There were always negative thoughts to shut out of course – a good reminder that inside every star athlete is a human being with many of the same emotions as the rest of us. “You’re still nervous and you’re still fighting that inner voice all day of ‘she looks really good’ and your back is aching and you’re a bit tired,” says Sally.
“You have to control that, no-one else can,” she insists. “You have to say ‘I train hard, I deserve it, I’m just as good as everybody else’.”
A big motivation for Sally Gunnell now is to motivate people of all ages and abilities to get out and exercise. Just like her insight on winning Olympic gold, she gives a refreshingly honest take.
“It’s about finding something you enjoy, so if you don’t like running don’t do it! You don’t have to find an hour. I’ll still go out and run up and down a few hills in fifteen minutes.
“Go for a walk, go on a bike ride, you’re more likely to stick at it if you have fun, just like I did in those early days.”
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