Adversity brings maturity for Gunnell

ATHLETICS: Britain's leading lady is taking the first tentative steps back on track after a year in which she has endured the pain of serious injury as well as losing her world 400 metres hurdles record. Mike Rowbottom reports
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A single figure laps the track at Crawley Stadium, accompanied by the sound of lorries on the bypass and the harsh cries of seagulls drawn inland by freezing weather as they wheel overhead.

A crow waddles across the infield. More lorries pass. The wind chill factor, as the afternoon gives way to evening, is around -12C. The figure embarks on another lap.

The fates which carried Sally Gunnell to Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth titles have brought her to this bleak place in an attempt to turn fortune's wheel full circle after a year-long plunge into injury which caused her to doubt whether she would compete again.

The bone-chilling wind bears a clear imperative: go home; get warm. But Gunnell sets her face against it. Atlanta calls, and she has promises to keep.

Britain's most successful female athlete of all time is quite different now to the giggly, occasionally gauche character who made her breakthrough at 400 metres hurdles in the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. The suffering of the last year, as much as the achievements of the previous three, have effected the change.

Gunnell's maturity has been well marked by Bruce Longden, who has coached her throughout her career. "I have seen it for some time," he said. "Last year made her realise a lot more about herself, the trials and tribulations of it all. She has always been a tough character, but I think it has made her even tougher. It's a case of 'been there, done that' for her. Now she's been seriously injured, and come back.

"Until she had her injury, everything had rolled along relatively smoothly for her. Suddenly she found a large buffer in her way and she has had to deal with it."

The buffer in question emerged around this time last year. It was not, as was first feared, an Achilles tendon injury, but a growth of a bone spur in her right heel which was diagnosed belatedly and removed surgically in August. Dealing with it, however, was not as simple an operation.

"First of all it was a matter of learning to walk again," Gunnell recalled. "It was really weird to think that this person hobbling around was me."

Her situation was not without its lighter moments - she chuckled as she recalled the presentation for a sports bra which she gave while on crutches. "In a way I think it worked in my favour, but I had to laugh at myself."

But the laughter ceased in the autumn months after the crutches had been set aside. "That was the worst time for me," she said. "I had expected to come out and start running again straight away, but I seemed to be worse off. I thought, 'Eight months. For Christ's sake, how long is this going to go on for?'

"I felt as if I'd been patient all summer and I was desperate to get on with it. I would have a good day, and I would think 'Yes!' Then I would have a week when I would hurt again. I was in tears every time I started to stride. I never ever thought I'd be in so much pain."

For the first time in her life, Gunnell was in the disturbing territory which so many talented athletes have had to traverse. Roger Black could have told her about it. Derek Redmond could have told her about it. Liz McColgan could have told her about it. But in the end it is a place you have to visit, and leave, alone.

The journey back has been long and fraught. Like any other athlete who has suffered serious injury, her outlook has altered. She runs where she can on grass to cushion the stress on her foot. And she has to make calculations about the relative softness of the tracks near her home outside Brighton.

The decision to train at Crawley, for instance, had been prompted by her feeling that the surface at Horsham stadium which she has used for years was becoming a bit hard.

Even getting on to the windswept track at Crawley was not straightforward. Locked gates frustrated her first attempt to enter the stadium, and the path back to the sports centre's reception was cordoned off with a crazed superabundance of tape which suggested the work of Gordon Brittas.

Having gone the long way round to the main desk, Gunnell struggled to make her request for access heard above the screaming saws and echoing hammers of whatever renovation work was in progress. You could not help thinking that Gunnell's exotic French rival, Marie-Jose Perec, would not be encountering similar local difficulties at the University of Irvine track in California.

Gunnell has had more than enough time to contemplate her chances of retaining the Olympic 400m hurdles title this summer. Perec, Olympic and world 400m champion, finished her first full season of hurdling last year with a personal best of 53.21sec in only her sixth race - as compared with the world record of 52.74 which Gunnell set in winning the 1993 world title.

Since then, of course, that record has been lowered by Gunnell's American friend Kim Batten who, pushed to the line by her compatriot Tonja Buford, recorded 52.61 in last summer's World Championships at Gothenburg.

The effect upon Gunnell was immediate - as part of the BBC commentary team in Sweden, she had to interview Batten as she came off the track. "I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, but I was also in shock," she recalled. "It was only later that night that I thought, 'Oh God. That's your world record gone as well. What a bomber of a year'."

She is in no doubt that the record is due to be lowered again in Atlanta, especially if she, Perec, Batten and Buford are all fit.

"There is no doubt the world record is going to go again," she said. "I think it is in Perec's mind, and I'm sure she's capable of it. But I also think Kim, Tonja and myself can do it. There are four of us, and if we are all fit it is going to be a great race - so long as I can come out on top. And I believe I'm capable of doing it. Technically I really believe I'm better than the others."

Ultimately, each athlete concentrates on herself - and Gunnell is now in Stellenbosch to train in conditions a climatic world away from Crawley. It is here that she will do her first serious hurdling.

"You don't ever forget how to hurdle after doing it for so long," she said. Even so, she is pushed to recall the last time she raced competitively over the hurdles - 9 September, 1994, when she won in the IAAF World Cup final at Crystal Palace.

A year and a half ago in Helsinki, shortly before she completed her set of international titles by winning the European Championships, Gunnell sat underneath a statue of Finland's legendary athlete Lasse Viren and spoke about the difficulty of finding new goals to pursue. The truth was that she was the best. She had done it all.

It is tempting to speculate that, at a subconscious level, the only challenge she had left was injury. She does not concur with such a hypothesis, but acknowledges that her problem may have been exacerbated by her attempts to push herself even harder in training.

"I must admit," she said, "that last January I was on that fine line of being the fittest I've ever been and..." She paused for a moment, mentally taking in her trials of the last 12 months. "As I look at it now," she went on, "I think this year off was meant to be. When you can't do something you love, you want it back badly." If Olympic titles were awarded for desire and determination, Gunnell could already count on a second gold.