In the last in our series of nostalgic memories of the IAAF World Championships, we revisit the triumphant moments of Great Britain’s 400m hurdles legend Sally Gunnell.
For Sally Gunnell, her gold medal success and world record-breaking performance at the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart was very much founded on ‘Lucky 13’.
Backed by the meticulous planning of her late coach Bruce Longden, the Briton’s preparation for the World Championships was based on a strategy of reaching a perfect peak in the 13th race of the season, just like it was when winning the Olympic 400m hurdles crown in Barcelona the preceding year.
And in a build-up which was timed to perfection, Gunnell spectacularly delivered to pip her longstanding rival Sandra Farmer-Patrick to the gold by 0.05 and scalp 0.20 from Mariya Stepanova’s world record mark to record 52.74 in a riveting race which lit up an atmospheric Gottlieb Daimler Stadium.
“I shocked myself,” recalls Gunnell, “and it took ages to sink in.”
The Briton’s World Championships story began six years earlier when as a raw and nervous 21-year-old she lined up in the 100m hurdles in Rome. Failing to make it beyond the semi-finals at the 1987 edition proved a pivotal moment in her career and set her on the path to greatness as a one-lap hurdler.
“Those girls (in the 100m hurdles) were so far ahead of me, I felt I could never get close to them on the world scene,” she recalls. On the recommendation of her coach, she tried out for the 400m hurdles and it proved a masterstroke.
In her first full season at the event she placed fifth at the 1988 Olympic final in Seoul – a performance which gave her the encouragement she could contend for a medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Under the wily tutelage of Longden, Gunnell enjoyed a steady progression in her new event before experiencing a giant leap forward in 1991, dipping below 54 seconds for the first time.
By the time of the 1991 IAAF World Championships in Tokyo she was ready to contend and in a close-run race picked up silver in a national record of 53.16, just 0.05 adrift of gold medallist Tatyana Ledovskaya.
“For me, Tokyo was just about winning a medal,” admits Gunnell. “People asked me if I was disappointed to win silver, but I wasn’t. It was all about that four-year process and winning in Barcelona. I knew I was one step closer in my journey. I made some mistakes (she stuttered badly leading into the tenth hurdle), but I knew there was so much more to give.”
After the 1991 World Championships, Gunnell and her coach introduced visualisation and greater mental preparation into her build up. Applying the principle of the Olympic final being her 13th race of the year as the optimum point of her campaign, the British athlete reached a physical and technical peak for the Barcelona Olympics and for the first time in her career adopted a 15-stride pattern to hurdle eight before coming home at 16 strides.
“I only ever did that stride pattern twice in my whole career, the other time being the 1993 World Championship final,” she explains. “I couldn’t run fast enough or do it on the Grand Prix circuit. I had to have all that expectation and pressure on me and my body to be at an absolute peak. Bruce had worked out that it was the 13th race. It was all about visualising and the executing the race plan.”
In Barcelona, Gunnell romped to gold in a time of 53.23 from USA’s Farmer-Patrick – a victory which was to change the whole course of her life. She instantly became a household name in her homeland. She was invited to a head-spinning array of attractive events but in early 1993 – and in preparation for the World Championships in Stuttgart – she knew she needed to refocus.
“I got caught up a little bit in some of the invites,” she admits. “I reached a point when I thought, ‘I’m not focused enough or training hard enough’. I became scared of failure and I faced a new position as favourite. I needed to knuckle down in training.”
Approaching the 1993 season unsure as to her form, she was reassured to run a 49-second 4x400m relay split in her first race of the season – a performance which kick-started a stunning unbeaten 400m hurdles campaign leading into the 1993 World Championships.
But after an amazing build-up, she suffered a sobering jolt when picking up a nasty cold at the pre-World Championships holding camp in Switzerland.
“I knew I was in great shape but suddenly I was in danger of everything being taken away from me,” she says. “Suddenly, I had a lot to lose.”
For about a week she considered pulling out of the World Championships but her coach and teammates persuaded her to compete.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen but I had to be big enough and brave enough to deal with it,” she explains. “I liked to be on that start line with all the boxes ticked, but here I was with a cold. I remember running the heats hoping I would not let my opponents know I had a cough.”
In the heats and semifinals she retained her composure to win both in 55.06 and 53.95 respectively to advance to the medal race. Not that Gunnell, who was competing with that lingering cold, was brimming with confidence.
“I stood on that start line for the final having no idea what was going to happen,” she says.
In a rip-roaring final Gunnell – in her 13th race of the season – trailed Farmer-Patrick for much of the race, only to edge past the US athlete off the tenth hurdle to clinch a famous win.
“I was so much in the zone, I had no idea I’d won. It took about 30 seconds for me to realise. Then it was only down the back straight of my victory lap did I realise it was a world record. It was quite a different emotion from winning in Barcelona; it was more one of relief.”
Her triumph in Barcelona had been no fluke and Gunnell celebrated by devouring a massive bar of milk chocolate she had bought during the holding camp in Switzerland.
The next year she secured the European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles titles but a bone spur problem denied her the opportunity to defend her world title in Gothenburg – a championship when working for the BBC she had to interview 400m hurdles gold medallist Kim Batten, who had just broken her world record.
After failing to complete her 1996 Olympic final, she pulled a calf muscle after her heat at the 1997 World Championships in Athens and promptly called a press conference to announce her retirement at the age of 31.
“At that point I was struggling to motivate myself and, to be honest, to retire was a big relief.”
Today Gunnell still holds a keen interest in athletics. Her husband, Jon Bigg, is coach to a crop of exciting middle-distance athletes led by European indoor 800m silver medallist Shelayna Oskan-Clarke, and her oldest of three sons, Finley Bigg, 19, is a 1:49 800m runner.
Boasting a busy life as a motivational speaker, and corporate work in health and well-being, Gunnell, who has two other sons, Luca, 16, and Marley, 12, says: “It is great that 25 years on since Barcelona and 24 years since Stuttgart I still have these opportunities.”
Invited by the IAAF to attend the forthcoming IAAF World Championships London 2017, she is particularly excited to watch the women’s 400m hurdles, currently populated by an exciting crop of US talent.
Now aged 50, Gunnell will be remembered by many for her Olympic success but she selects a different race as her all-time favourite.
“For me personally, the race I am most proud of is my World Championship win,” she explains. “Some people described it as the race of the championships and to be part of that was very special.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF