Record-breaking athlete, Sally Gunnell

Sussex is home to some incredible sports people, not least powerful former track and field athlete and Steyning resident, Sally Gunnell. Let’s console ourselves over the postponement of this year’s Tokyo Olympics by revisiting and celebrating Sally Gunnell’s inspiring sports achievements. 

Athlete Sally Gunnell with a union jack flag draped around her shoulders celebrating at winning a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, the crowd is in the background.
Sally Gunnell winning a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, 1992

During the late 1980s and ‘90s Sally Gunnell (b.1966) won hearts nationwide by picking up a slew of gold medals in a series of nailbiting races and breaking world records. Gunnell still holds the remarkable feat of becoming the only woman ever to hold four major track titles concurrently, as an Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth gold medallist at the same time. This achievement is still to be surpassed. 

Chigwell-born Gunnell’career began in the early 1980s with the Essex Ladies Club.  She originally focused as a pentathlete and long jumper but, as her strength, explosive power and mental toughness came into their own, it became clear that she would make an excellent sprinter and hurdler.   

This hunch came good when in 1986 she won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.  In 1989, after focusing on longer distances, she won Gold at the European Cup 400m flat race in Gateshead 

Attracting plaudits for her speed and endurance capabilities, she won further gold in the 400m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland the following year.   

In 1991, a slip in concentration led to Gunnell coming second place in the Tokyo World Championships but by the following year at the Olympics in Barcelona she was back on track, winning gold – and a place in the history books as the first British woman to win a track gold at the Olympics in the 400m hurdles.   

1993 saw Gunnell’s mental toughness and endurance skills tested to the limit when she arrived at the World Championships in Stuttgart feeling ill with a heavy cold.  As she failed to improve and feeling she had no option, Gunnell called a press conference at which she was going to announce her withdrawal.  Suddenly, at the last minute she cancelled the press conference and went ahead to compete.  For many athletes, taking part in the gruelling competition in that situation this would have been an achievement enough.  Gunnell, however, not only managed to finish first, claiming another gold medal, but also set a new world record of 52.74 seconds.  Although now surpassed, this time still ranks in the world all-time top ten and is the current British record.   

Sadly, the later years of Gunnell’s career were blighted by injury and after her remarkable run, she finished competing in 1997.  After this she became a member of the BBC Sport team and until 2006, was a regular fixture on athletics programmes, interviewing athletes on the finish line and bringing her experience and expertise to TV viewers all over the world.   

Already awarded the MBE in 1993, Gunnell was made OBE in the 1998 Queen’s Birthday Honours.  In 2011, she was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex. 

Gunnell has always raised money for good causes, working as a Red Cross ambassador in Angola in the 1990s and competing in numerous TV shows and competitions to win money for charity. 

Today, having forever made her mark on British sport, she seeks to encourage others, using her profile to promote health and wellbeing, supporting initiatives that encourage families to be more active and helping companies to create room for wellbeing in the workplace.   


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