Chigwell-born Sally Gunnell on her Olympic glory and getting ready for a new challenge
In the not too distant past, Chigwell-born Olympian Sally Gunnell was preparing her body for the exertions of leaping over hurdles on her way to a gold medal.
With just over three weeks to go until the opening of the London Games, it is a surprise to find the former athlete still contemplating a physical challenge this year.
The 46-year-old’s main concern though is what film director Danny Boyle has in mind for her and other former medal winners taking part in the opening ceremony.
As she recently tweeted: “Hope it doesn’t involve any singing or dancing.”
From her own career highpoint of winning the 400m hurdles at the Barcelona Games in 1992, to her work with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), Sally has had a long association with the greatest show on earth.
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As a UK Ambassador this year, she will help to present the best image of London possible to visiting dignitaries and media, while also covering the Games with Sky Sports News.
And, as she explains to the Recorder, she is relishing being involved in Stratford despite not having to take to the track.
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She says: “Reality is setting in and it’s only weeks away.
“It’s great to see so many people are really looking forward to it and it’s not always those who are interested in sport.
“It’s nice to be involved in it and to see the other side of it, to see what goes into putting the Olympics together.
“That’s what’s so great about it – to enjoy it without the pressure.”
From the family farm in Chigwell, Sally went to Chigwell Primary School where a teacher eventually suggested she join an athletics club.
It proved a good decision to start running with the Essex Ladies club, now amalgamated into Woodford Green Athletic Club at Ashton Playing Fields in Chigwell Road, Woodford Green.
Having joined when she was 12, by 14 she was spotted by the wife of national coach Bruce Longden.
With previous experience training a double gold medal winner in the shape of Daley Thompson, Bruce was able to take young Sally’s career to the next level with sessions at Crystal Palace, where she travelled three times a week.
But she still trained with Essex Ladies and competed for them throughout her career. She looks back with fond memories on her association with the club.
She says: “Anyone who loves athletics, the first rule is to go and join a club. You get all the support and training.
“I really enjoyed being part of Essex Ladies and the trips away, the great people down at the club. That was part of the reason why I stuck at it.”
Having started out as a pentathlete and a long jumper, she was also able to get help in finding her niche as a hurdle runner.
She believes it is good for young athletes to try different disciplines.
She says: “When you start at clubs, you should try different events, you don’t really know what you’re good at and it helps to improve a lot of other skills.”
Her secondary school, West Hatch High School in High Road, Chigwell, was “really great” at supporting her development as a world class athlete.
Sally says up-and-coming stars still have to keep their eye on their exercise books as well. And the support of parents, family and friends is equally important.
She says: “You have to have people around you who don’t put you under too much pressure.
“There’s not many people who become athletes and make a living so it’s important to get your qualifications.”
Taking the plunge by leaving school at 17, which she admits was a “bit of a gamble”, she had part-time jobs in Woodford Green and surrounding areas, including childminding and bar work, to support herself while training.
A breakthrough performance of a gold medal at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, cemented her future as a 400m hurdler leading to her golden moment in Barcelona two years later.
Of winning the medal, she says: “That was the dream since I was 14 years old. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
As the only woman to hold Commonwealth, European, Olympic and World titles all at the same time (see roll of honour), she is in a good position to offer some advice to this summer’s crop of competitors.
She says handling nerves and using them to motivate yourself in training is important. She admits she would have enjoyed taking part in a home Games just six miles from her former home (she now lives near Brighton with her family).
Having struggled with injuries towards the end of her career, she retired in 1997 but maintains an active and healthy lifestyle.
That is particularly important because, alongside media work and motivational speaking, she runs a bespoke workplace wellbeing programme that helps companies “tackle health, wellness and corporate social responsibility issues”.
It involves Sally speaking to staff and organising office exercise sessions in pilates and yoga, for example, and healthy living away days.
She hopes a legacy of the Games will be encouraging healthier lifestyles nationwide.
She says: “We are in a situation, obesity is becoming quite a problem and a strain on the NHS.
“More people need to get that message across.”
And at least Danny Boyle will know that should he need Sally to try out some moves on opening night on July 27, she will be in good enough shape to manage it.