How We Met: Jonathan Bigg and Sally Gunnell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Jonathan Bigg, 28, represented England as an 800m runner in junior athletics. His sporting career was cut short by a leg injury four years ago, but he is about to start competing again at club level. A freelance graphic designer, he currently spends most of his time working with his wife, Sally Gunnell.

Sally Gunnell MBE, 27, formerly a researcher for a firm of chartered accountants, is World Champion in the 400m hurdles and won the 400m gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. She recently launched her own Step and Slide fitness video. She lives near Brighton with her husband and two cats.

SALLY GUNNELL: I first saw Jon nine years ago when we had a get-together with the junior athletes. We were on the train. I was sitting chatting, he walked past and I looked up and probably just thought 'Oh, he's nice.'

In January 1985, we went away to Australia on a junior international under-23s trip. Right from the word go, on the aeroplane, we hit it off. I remember thinking he was a good-looking chap. He was always very funny and mucking around, so I thought he was fun as well. Our way of showing our feelings towards each other was taking the mickey. We were embarrassed to be too nice to each other.

I lived in Essex and he lived in Brighton and I just hoped there was a way it would last. When we came home, we were both desperate to make the first move. Then it was Valentine's Day, so he sent a card and I sent one back, not putting my name on but making it obvious.

I'd borrow my dad's car and go down for a weekend, and he used to come up to see me. It was total, I was besotted by him. We used to hate it when the weekends were over. We'd phone each other three times a day.

We were only 19. I say now, 'God, it was so young,' and it was young, but it was very serious. We made it work, we just wanted to see each other so much. We were together every other weekend, travelling back and forth.

Well, after four years, we both knew in our hearts that we would like to spend the rest of our lives together. We couldn't afford anywhere up where my mum and dad lived, so we got somewhere in Brighton. It was just so nice to be together the whole time.

Then in 1990 we went away on a holiday to Florida and a couple just next to us on the beach were getting married. We went out a couple of days later and got into one of our deep discussions over dinner. We'd had a few to drink and we were chatting away, talking about life generally, and he said 'How about getting married?' And that was it. So we spent another week trying to find a ring.

We decided to wait a couple of years and get married after the Olympics. We wanted our parents to be there, but lots of other people wanted to come to Florida and join us and we had 50 at the wedding, overlooking the sea on a sort of lawn. It was lovely.

We've got a lot in common, that's why we get on so well. He understands why I have to go away and race for five weeks sometimes. We never argue; I mean, in nine years, we've probably argued about three times and it's been forgotten within a few hours.

We've had changes in that I'm pushed into this celebrity status. Jon wasn't particularly enjoying what he was doing, so he's stepped back from it for a couple of years, and is getting more involved with what I'm doing. We're bringing out a vitamin range, and he can use his graphic design skills in the labels and things like that.

He works a lot with my publicity agency, sifting stuff so it doesn't have to come to me. It takes a hell of a lot of pressure off, which is very important. I wouldn't be happy with what I'm doing at the moment if he wasn't with me. He's been very good.

What I enjoy most is being at home and getting away from it all, being with Jon and the cats. He's made sure that I've kept my feet on the ground, and pulled me back down to earth.

My being famous hasn't put any pressure on us. We've decided to make the most of it, because we know it's not going to be forever. I know that in three or four years' time, that's going to be it. I've seen a lot of people change and let it get to their heads. I'm quite an easy sort of person.

On many occasions, I get up in the mornings and think 'Oh, I can't be bothered to go for a run today,' and he's like, 'Well, I'm going out for a run - are you coming?' Or sometimes I come home from London about 8 or 9 o'clock at night and all I want to do is sit down, and he'll sit there and make me feel guilty, and then I'll just get up and do training or whatever.

Guys I went out with before used to say 'Why can't you come out later?' or ''Why have you got to go away for a week's training?' Jon understands the time and commitment I have to make to athletics; the sacrifices.

JONATHAN BIGG: I remember seeing Sally two years before we actually met. It was on a train going to a junior get-together. We didn't speak and I was grouped up with the lads, and she was with a couple of girls.

The first time we met was in Australia. I can't recall her too well on the plane going out. But by the time we'd been there a few days, there were about eight or nine of us going around together, and I slowly realised that I was talking mainly to Sally. My first impressions were of someone with a lot of confidence, someone who was unexpected, someone who had something special about her. She had an aura about her.

I can't say that I said there and then 'That's the girl for me' because it really wasn't like that. But once I started talking to her I realised she liked to do things I liked to do. Out in Australia, hers was the race before mine, so as I was crossing the line, she was waiting at the rostrum to pick up her prize, and I realised then that she was good.

After about two weeks, the group got down to just me and Sally and we were spending all the time together, taking the mickey out of each other quite harshly. We were only 19; I think that's the way people try to break the barriers down. The crunch really came when we got back. At the airport it was left that I would ring her in a couple of weeks. I got home, and had gone about five days, when I suddenly realised 'God, I really want to ring her.' Valentine's Day came up before I was supposed to ring her and I knew this card I had was from her, so I phoned her as soon as I got the card, which was two days early. Then I went up to see her, and I think that was when we got serious.

It seemed to have all possible difficulties in it: we were young, she lived 70 miles away, we were both trying to do athletics, we both had jobs that we were doing as well, so the number of days we could actually see each other was minimal. There were a lot of very early mornings, driving down the M25 and getting stuck in the Dartford Tunnel. It was the first time someone had meant enough for me to get up at five in the morning and drive 70 miles to work before seven.

I don't know about Sally, but in my mind, I'd made the decision that I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. This was four, five years ago. I wasn't running at all because of injury, and she was going off racing a lot. There were long periods of time apart. Getting married was the best thing I ever did, definitely, it made such a difference.

I think Sally being famous is one of those things that quite a lot of blokes might have had trouble with, because you feel you take the back seat. Maybe it comes down to how much I value the relationship; I don't want anything to get in the way of it. It's a supporting role, more than anything. If the boot was on the other foot I know she'd support me, so I have to be there for her.

I'm incredibly proud of Sally, really proud of her. I was proud of her when she won the Olympics, but to do what she did in '92 was the best, because she was ill going into that race and she put every single thing she's worked for on the line. She'd been in such prime condition, she was ready to break the world record and then, a week before, she got this cold and was on antibiotics. God knows how she felt, but she turned it around. To me, that's her greatest achievement. -

(Photograph omitted)