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VIDEO: The Big Interview with Sally Gunnell

It's Barcelona, August 1992, and Sally Gunnell's magical, career-defining moment is less than a minute away.


There's already been a false start to the final of the women's 400 metres hurdles, ratcheting up the jangling nerves among the competitors and the excitement in the crowd in the Montjuic Stadium.

But a TV camera picks out the athlete in lane three, wearing number 715. The epitome of calm, Great Britain's big hope for gold.

And 53.23 seconds later, Gunnell is living her dream as the Olympic champion with a feeling of "overwhelming, uncontainable joy".

She reveals there were nerves under that calm exterior, hardly surprising considering the circumstances, but insists, pragmatically: "I knew what I had to do and just had to get on with it."

Nowadays her most nervous sporting moments come when monitoring 16-year-old son Finley's budding 400 metres career – on some very familiar territory – and the parental commitment that entails.

"He's ranked third in the country and he's loving it. Both parents were athletes (husband Jonathan Bigg was an 800m runner) but we've never pushed him into what we were doing," she says.

And does standing by in support affect her composure in any way?

"Totally," she admits. "As a parent you get as nervous as anything.

"And I'm now going round the country to all those little meetings that I started in, schools, county championships and so on.

"I don't know how my parents did it."

Thankfully they did. For the result was a communal puff of the nation's chest whenever she hoisted that red, white and blue flag in triumph at her many achievements on the track.

And that was never more true than when Gunnell left deadly rival Sandra Farmer-Patrick trailing in her wake in Barcelona.

Great Britain's Sally Gunnell with her gold medal for the women' 400 metres hurdles, which she won at the Barcelona Olympics.

This was in an era when British gold medals were much less common than we became used to at the last two Olympic games.

Only five were won in 1992 across all sports and Gunnell was the only female member of the team to claim the ultimate prize.

And her glory came after that false start. "I remember thinking, 'Oh God, it could all have been over and done with'," she reveals.

"I just had to wait that little bit longer because you just get to that point where you think 'I can't get out of it, just get on with it and give it your best shot'. But I knew exactly what I had to execute."

Finally the gun went and her main rival was off like a train. But even from the lane inside Farmer-Patrick, Gunnell admits she was not aware of what the American was doing.

"You're in the situation where the great athletes are the one running their own race, so you are in control and doing everything you've worked out," she says.

"I didn't have a clue where she was. She was outside of me and she went off really hard. In the past I might have panicked and gone off too hard with her and got my stride pattern wrong.

"But I knew exactly what times I had to execute, what stride patterns, I'd mentally prepared myself for that.

"I'd mucked up the year before on the worlds, stuttered at hurdle eight because I'd started looking and wondering where everyone was.

"I'd mentally rehearsed myself and was positive that if I was in the lead at the eighth hurdle or up there it was mine because I had got the strength at the end and that's what happened."

Which possibly explains the look on her face – one which screams 'I've got you now' – as she overtook Farmer-Patrick on the way into the final straight and victory.

One more mighty triumph at the American's expense awaited, but Gunnell had reached a peak that she dreamed of as a child.

Good at a number of sports, she built up her strength and stamina working on the family farm in Chigwell, Essex – where she occasionally drove tractors.

"I guess that led me to that outdoor life that I love," she agrees. "Growing up on a farm was a really important part of my early development, being outside running around.

"I think I had a natural talent but there's been lots of research about how active you are as child .

"Being active has got to be a way of life and the earlier you can get people active the better. As parents we're massive role models and it's really crucial for children to develop those early skills."

Her own early early flirtation was with the heptathlon and this got her spotted and led her to Essex Ladies, the club that nurtured her burgeoning talent.

But she admits it was regular trips to watch big athletics meetings at Crystal Palace that really fired her imagination – because she was able to view the likes of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson in their pomp.

"We used to go to the meets on a Friday night," she says. "And the 1980 Olympics were crucial for me to watch on television. Really inspiring.

"Daley, I loved his character and he was doing the same events as me. He was probably the big inspiration. But I wouldn't tell him, though!"

Sally Gunnell again on the podium.

Gunnell began to specialise in the 100m hurdles and won a Commonwealth gold medal in 1986.

"I remember my coach saying 'Great, but you're never going to be the world's best at that.' Those girls leading the world were so fast.

"Technically I was good but I was never going to be as fast as them. So 400m hurdles was suggested.

"I remember thinking 'why would I want to do that?' but I was thrown into one race and I wasn't far off the British record.

"I kept going at both then at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul I was fifth in the 400 so that's when I thought 'Found it – this is it'."

By the time the next Games came around Gunnell was the world No.1.

And despite the claims of Farmer-Patrick, she sealed the deal one year later at the world championships in Stuttgart.

This time, though, it was a closer finish, and Gunnell had to break the world record with her time of 52.74 seconds to secure gold – with the American also faster than the previous best mark.

"It was probably the most exciting race I've ever been in and still when I watch it now I think 'Wow,'" she admits.

"It was very different to the year before. All of a sudden everybody expects you to win a medal

"She's (Farmer-Patrick) disappeared for two months so I had no idea what shape she was in, She didn't do the grand prix circuit which she normally did so she had a different approach.

"I guess she thought she was going to get me but I was so focused I was going to do whatever I needed. It took a world record."

Gunnell held the two biggest titles in her sport, but the medal bearing the five rings is the one she cherishes more.

"Definitely. The Olympics are every four years and have a great history. You're always remembered for it," she says.

"But Stuttgart was also special. I learned a lot about myself on that day.

"It scared me a bit, what you can actually physically do in a certain situation.

"I remember walking away thinking 'How did I do that?'. It was a bit like I was looking at someone else."

Stuttgart also gave Gunnell a record she's proud still to hold – the only British woman to win Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth gold medals.

However, the Olympics also brought Gunnell the most distressing moment of her career – when injury forced her out of the 400m hurdles semi-final as she attempted to defend her title in Atlanta in 1996.

"It was a real low point," she confesses."I couldn't come out and retain my title. It was really heartbreaking.

"I had an Achilles op the year before and then the other Achilles went."

Sally received an OBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace for her services to athletics.

A last hurrah in 1997 with European Cup gold came in 1997 but the cumulative effect of the injuries ushered her out of competitive hurdling.

She retired with an impressive collection, including relay medals, of Olympic gold and bronze, world championships gold, silver and bronze, European championship gold and bronze, five Commonwealth golds and a silver, two World Cup golds and a bronze, four European Cup golds and two silvers, a Goodwill Games gold and European indoor championships gold.

Much of the success she credits to her husband, who she met at 19 and was a staunch supporter throughout her career.

She's also the proud possessor of an OBE and an MBE.

Life since retirement has remained busy for the 48-year-old. She has three sons – Finley, Luca, 14, and Marley, 10. She served a term as Deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex and has been a Red Cross ambassador.

There have been many TV appearances, including a nine-year presenting career with the BBC and plenty of charity events.

In 2012 she was one of five Olympians chosen as part of a series body-casting artworks by Louise Giblin exhibited in London and copies were sold in aid of the charity Headfirst.

A household name, by any standards, with a permanent place in sporting history.

Looking back on her retirement, announced at a press conference before she had informed either her husband or coach, she says: "I wasn't as hungry as I was before either. I did find it hard to remotivate myself when I'd achieved everything I set out to do. I wasn't a greedy sort of person.

"I started a family almost straight away."

And Gunnell didn't miss competing – until London 2012 came along.

"That was the first time I'd said that I wished I was still doing it," she admits. "Since the day I retired it was 'Been there, done that – you guys can get on with it'.

"But sitting in that stadium and being there for Jess (Ennis) and all those guys was great.

"Just having that home crowd. It was the most amazing Olympics.

"I would have loved to compete in that stadium. It was only a 20-25 minute drive from where I was brought up. I look at the Lee Valley indoor stadium that would only be about 10 minutes away and wish I had had facilities like that for training."

Gunnell still sees some old pals from her heyday – fellow Barcelona gold medalist Linford Christie and high hurdles legend Colin Jackson among them.

"You don't see them as much as you'd like to but you end up with your paths crossing," she says. "You might go to a grand prix and they'll all be there or a dinner.

"We reminisce but mostly we talk about our kids now, what they're all doing.

"It seems so far removed from those days. Linford, myself and Colin had a real understanding. They were there for me and I was there to pick them up and we got very close.

"They were really entertaining. We would all sit around chatting, playing cards, having a laugh. I don't think that happens any more. They have social media now – they say the athletes sit in their rooms twittering."

One thing that is still in the sport, however, is doping.

A recent report in Germany suggested up to 99 per cent of Russian athletes were involved in the unsavoury practice.

Sally Gunnell with our man Bob Kane.

Gunnell obviously disapproves of cheating, but claims it was something she did not let distract her from her own aims.

"It's always been there. you always know when you stand on the line there are a certain amount of people doing it," she says.

"I've seen the difference that winning or getting silver can do to you as a person and your career.

"But I really believed I could do it without cheating. I was never offered it.

"The really sad thing is why some of the countries aren't supporting it. That's what I find really frustrating.

"We are the strictest country with the tightest regime of testing and you think 'Why can't it be the same in every country?'

"It's very sad because it is a great sport. I always say people will get caught and none of them realise what the long term effects are and they've got to live with that.

"Maybe because I went out and proved you can do it, it never became an issue in my life.

"I loved the sport and we had great characters in the sport and I didn't feel as though it was bringing the sport down.

"The Russian thing is big but there are some great competitors out there."

With the next Olympic Games in Rio less than 18 months away, the efforts of our current medal hopes are already being channelled towards the event.

But Gunnell warned not to expect another runaway success for Team GB after being awash with medal success in 2012.

"It's going to be very difficult," she says. "There's something about a home games that makes you rise above everything and that made London special.

"But we'll still do well."

She fears it may be a Games too far for Ennis-Hill, poster girl in London where she joined the British female athletes Olympics gold medal club, which, when Gunnell won hers, only included long jumper Mary Rand and 800m winner Ann Packer at Tokyo in 1964, and pentathlete Mary Peters in Munich in 1972.

But the Sheffield-based heptathlete has been troubled by injury and also took time out to start a family.

However, there is new European indoor pentathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson ready to challenge.

"Kat is very strong, an amazing talent," says Gunnell. "I think it will hard for Jess next year. Good for her wanting to come back, but I think if Kat is 100 per cent anybody in the world will struggle to beat her."

Gunnell has been involved in motivational speaking for last 15 years and also has her own firm offering health and well-being advice.

"We go into companies and help them structure a plan for their staff," she says.

"I like to do something away from the limelight. It's a real business and it's about going in and making real changes."

Despite being resident near Brighton for a number of years, Gunnell will be forever associated with the county where she was brought up.

But she's the Essex girl whose bling consists of a collection of glittering prizes rather than the gauche trinkets on display on THAT TV show.

And Essex? "I've now lived more of my life in Sussex than Essex," she says."Anyway they've got Joey Essex now.

"My husband and I were on Mr and Mrs with him and his girlfriend and they beat us. He's not as stupid as people like to think.

"Oh, and I've never even watched the TOWIE programme. But I'm proud of my roots."

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