Date of Birth: 1966
Born: Chigwell, Essex.
Club: Essex Ladies
Coach: Bruce Longden
IT was in 1986 when the name Sally Gunnell became synonymous with everything which was successful about British athletics during one of the greatest periods for the sport. At the national championships in Birmingham, Gunnell ended one era and rolled in a new one when she won the 100 metres hurdles to book her place at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and European Championships in Stuttgart.
Her victory at the AAA saw her beat favourite and British No 1 Shirley Strong, and from that moment on, it was Gunnell who went from strength to strength. While it was clearing the barriers which became her trademark, her first national titles were at long jump: WAAA junior 1980, intermediate 1981. After UK age records, 15-17 at heptathlon and 16-17 at 100m hurdles, she won English Schools 100mh titles in 1983-4 after the junior long jump in 1980 and then came her crowning glory at senior level in Birmingham. She had so much power in her sprinting and much of her ability to go over the hurdles was based on some of the most unorthodox training a sprinter has ever had.
Gunnell was brought up on her family farm in Chigwell, Essex, and it was here that she used to make hurdles out of piles of hay - and it proved the perfect preparation.
Stepping Up For Glory
The summer of 1986 was not entirely golden for Gunnell. She won the Commonwealth Games in style, but then was knocked out in the first round of the European Championships. “It is all about learning and taking what you can both from a victory and a disappointment,” she said. And how she learned. Within six years she was the Olympic champion - but not at the distance that she had put so much of her practise into. She had talked about moving upto the 400m hurdles, mainly because she had fine stamina to marry alongside her strength, and when in 1987 she decided to that, the world was treated to something special Her debut over the longer hurdles distance saw her clock 59.90, which she improved rapidly in 1988 to set four British records from 55.40 to 54.03 when she was fifth at the Olympics.
She also ran a British record of 12.82 for 100m hurdles. In 1989 she won the European Indoor 400m and in 1990 won Commonwealth gold medals at 400m hurdles and 4 x 400m relay and a silver at 100m hurdles, but it was the one-lap which became her sole event. In 1991 she improved her British record for 400m hurdles with 53.78 and 53.62 before winning silver at the World Championships in Tokyo in 53.16, a Commonwealth record and a platform to the following year’s Olympic Games.
Gunnell Gets The Gold
Tuesday August 17, 1992, was a night to remember for Gunnell when she became the first British woman to win a track gold medal at the Olympics. And what a race. Gunnell had control throughout and as Sandra Farmer-Patrick closed in on her, the Essex star held on to triumph in 53.23 from the American in second in 53.69..
“Gunnell goes for gold and Gunnell gets the gold,” were the immortal words of the BBC’s legendary athletics commentator David Coleman - and she never looked back from that moment. But watch the re-run of that race, and Gunnell looked a gold medallist from the second the athletes walked onto the track. With total concentration, she placed her bag by her blocks, layed on her back and did not move, looking into the sky, contemplating what would happen before her golden run. It was just the beginning.
Sal’s a World-Beater
Twelve months on, the World Championships took place in Stuttgart and the 400m hurdles was a re-run of Barcelona. In 1992, she had married Jon Bigg, an 800m runner of 1:48.40 standard and who became a rock of support in her progress. She has never waned from praising the support he has shown her. But what an evening it was in Germany when Gunnell won the world title in a world-record run of 52.74, with Farmer-Patrick second once more, in 52.79. It was the eighth time, also, that Gunnell had broken the British record and the landmarks just kept being achieved.
She ended the year being named as the IAAF Female Athlete of 1993, on an unprecedented night for Britain when Colin Jackson, who had set the 110m world record when he won the world title, collected the Male award. In 1994, Gunnell won European gold in Helsinki and Commonwealth gold in Victoria to become the first woman athlete to hold the big four major titles in athletics. She missed most of 1995 season because of foot injuries but returned in 1996 with the plan to defend her Olympic title. It was not to be. On an emotional night at the Lausanne Grand Prix, she broke down with injury with 200m left and though she made the Games in Atlanta, the injury struck again in the semi-final. But she was determined to go, and after winning the European Cup in Munich in 1997, she was forced to withdraw from her semi-final at the World Championships in Athens and retired a month later.
She was - and arguably still is - one of the best known sportswomen in Britain, joining the BBC television athletics team until 2005, while also opening up a number of sports centres in her name, and even training equestrian horses. She lives in Sussex with Jon and their three boys, Finley, Luca and Marley.
1983: sf 100mh, 13th heptathlon European Juniors
1986: 1st 100mh Commonwealth Games; 6th 400mh, 3rd 4x400m, ht 100mh Europeans
1987: ht 60mh European Indoors, sf 100mh Worlds
1988: 4th 400m European Indoors, sf 100mh, 5th 400mh, 6th 4x400m Olympics
1989: 1st 400m European Indoors, 6th 400m World Indoors, 3rd 400mh World Cup
1990: 1st 400mh & 4x400m, 2nd 100mh Commonwealth Games; 4th 400m European Indoors; 6th 400mh, 3rd 4x400m Europeans
1991: 2nd 400mh ,4th 4x400m Worlds
1992: 1st 400mh, 3rd 4x400m Olympics
1993: 1st 400mh, 3rd 4x400m Worlds
1994: 1st 400mh & 4x400m Commonwealth Games; 1st 400mh, 4th 4x400m Europeans; 1st 400mh & 4x400m World Cup
1996: sf 400mh Olympics
1997: sf 400mh Worlds
European Cup (400mh & 4x400mR): 1989- 2/3R, 1991- 2/3R, 1993- 1/5R, 1994- 1/1R, 1996- 1/5R, 1997- 1/3R.
Won UK 100mh 1986, 400mh 1997; AAA 100mh 1986-9, 1991-3; 400mh 1988, 1996; WAAA junior LJ 1980, intermediate LJ 1981.
100m 11.83 (1990), 11.8 (1987), 11.79w (1986); 200m 23.30 (1993), 300m 36.44 (1993), 400m 51.04 (1994), 100mh 12.82, 12.80w (1988); 400mh 52.74 (1993), high jump 1.67 (1983), long jump 6.08 (1983), shot 11.18 (1984), heptathlon 5493 (1984).
Indoors: 300m 37.88 (1989), 400m 51.72 (1994), 800m 2:08.36 (1991), 60mh 8.27 (1990), 100mh 13.71 (1985), Pentathlon 3690 (1983)