Sally Gunnell OBE DL is undoubtedly an inspiration to any aspiring female athlete. She is the only woman in sporting history to simultaneously win all four major competitions: Olympic games, World championships, Commonwealth games, and European championship.
Renowned for her win at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. We take a look at the marvellous, yet short-lived, athletic career of record-breaking female athlete; Sally Gunnell. And the impact her determination and speed has had on today’s sporting landscape.
A Recipe for Success
Born on the 29th of July 1966. Sally Gunnell the daughter of two ex-athletes; Rosemary and Les Gunnell, was destined to compete. Whilst we may struggle to relate to the extraordinary sportswoman she is now. – Gunnell actually started out just like any other ordinary girl, helping at her parent’s busy farm in Chigwell, Essex. Here she was heavily influenced by watching ‘[her] dad working hard [and] giving all his life to something’.
With natural born athleticism flowing in her veins and growing up working alongside her dedicated father. Gunnells parents had given her the all the key ingredients to become the athlete we know today. Her childhood home also had an impact; Sally claims she would ‘jump over the baler behind the combine […], so it was good training for hurdles.’ With that in mind, it will come of no surprise to learn, the ambitious athlete joined the Essex Ladies club at just 11 years old.
It was there she that she found her calling as an athlete and the sport she was destined for; 400m hurdles. Although she competed in pentathlons, long jump, and junior sprinting before settling into 100m hurdles. Eventually realising that her power, speed and endurance allowed her to go further distances.
Gunnells professional sporting career kicked off with competing in the 1986 Commonwealth games in Edinburgh. Securing a gold medal in the 100-metre hurdle event. She continued to demonstrate her sporting prowess throughout the 90’s, maintaining a brilliant track record in all major tournaments. That being said, we all have our ‘off days’- although for the majority of us having an ‘off day’ doesn’t mean losing out on a gold medal. But unfortunately for Sally, that’s exactly what it meant. In a fleeting moment of mental weakness at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan. Under high pressure, she glanced over at her rivals and that split second of mental distraction left her with only a silver and a sense of immense frustration.
Gunnell confirmed this was indeed a one off and reaffirmed her focus and persistent willpower during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Where she won gold at the 400-metre hurdle event and a place in the history books. She was looking forward to doing the same at the 1993 World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany. However, Sally’s hopes of winning gold again, were crushed the night before the race. She had fallen ill with a heavy cold and felt she had no choice but to prepare a press conference to announce her withdrawal.
But Gunnell did not withdraw, quite the contrary actually. She cancelled the press conference and took to the track despite still feeling unwell. And against all odds scored 52.74 in the 400m hurdles; breaking the world record. We think you’ll agree that’s pretty impressive seeing as most of us can’t even pull ourselves out of bed when we have a cold! While Gunnells world record was broken in 1995 by American Kim Batten, Gunnell still to this day holds the British record.
Hurdling Towards the Finish line
Unfortunately, after countless wins Gunnell’s amazing sporting career was disrupted by an Achilles tendon injury. It began to take its toll in the mid-nineties, when her performance in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was sadly cut short. Due to pulling up injured at the semi-finals. She was forced to retire in 1997, after the injury again forced her to pull out of the World Championship semi-finals. Leaving her fans devastated, but Sally not so much. As she admits she was excited to explore different opportunities and was ready for the next chapter of her life to begin.
With no longer being condemned to the burden of competitive sport, Sally channeled her energies into a new career and starting a family. She ended up having three children (Finley, Luca, and Marley) with her husband Jonathan Brigg, whom she married in 1992. Nowadays her expertise has allowed her own children to compete in a variety of sports, continuing Sally’s legacy.
Although retired from competition, Sally didn’t stray far from the track or the public eye. She embarked on a new career; or some may say a natural progression to covering athletics for the BBC. An important move as as sportswoman that carried a buzz. As women were highly underrepresented in sporting commentary/broadcasting and the media in general. According to Global Sport Matters, women’s sports receive only around 4% of total sports media coverage. – Which is severely lacking compared to male sports exposure.
Away from the sporting arenas Sally pursued other opportunities to promote health and fitness and published four books. Including titles: Running Tall’ (1994) and ‘Kick start: Your Way to a Healthier Lifestyle’ (2002). This again naturally progressed and Sally honed in on how inspiring the world finds her. So following her decade long presenting career, the mother of three also became a motivational speaker, using her successes and perseverance as a tool to inspire the nation and promote health and wellbeing. The Sally Gunnell website details her organisation: Corporate Wellbeing. – Which takes a holistic approach to encourage a thriving workplace through wellbeing strategies. There is an emphasis placed on businesses to equip their employees with the materials to achieve a successful workplace, obviously placing the needs of workers first to accomplish high productivity levels.
In addition to her encouraging keynote speeches, Gunnell has worked tirelessly for several charities, acting as a figurehead for the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, serving as a true inspiration to us all.
What’s next for Women and Sport?
While the now, 55-year-old role model has set an incredible precedent for all women aspiring to showcase their talents in competitive sport. The mission for equality in such competitions is still ongoing. Despite efforts made to debunk sexism in the field, women are still under-represented. ‘Women in Sport’ states, there are 1.5 million fewer women than men participating in sports at least once a month. The charity also declares that women feel unfairly judged and less valued compared to their male counterparts, with 40% of women experiencing gender discrimination.
Far too often, young girls fall out of love with their active hobbies as they reach their teenage years. Which is exactly why Sally’s sporting legacy should live on and why we have decided to dedicate this month to women in sport. Having such massively accomplished, determined (and yes we’ll say it again..) inspirational role models like Sally Gunnell to look to. Gives us hope that more and more aspiring female athletes will be encouraged to chase their dreams and let nothing stop them going for gold!