Athletics: From commuter train to Barcelona: Brough Scott talks to Sally Gunnell, embodiment of the spirit of British running

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The Independent Online
LATER on the old arena would be bathed in floodlights and the packed crowd would buzz to the gleaming limbs and flashing smiles of such as Jackson, Christie and Johnson punching the air in victory salutes and fancying their chances in Barcelona. But first there was Sally Gunnell.

It was 7.30 on Friday evening. A hint of drizzle, the usual traffic foul-up coming through from Norwood, the Crystal Palace its customary mixture of long, empty grounds and small crowded stadium, the TSB Grand Prix already two hours old but expectation waiting for the rumble later on. Gunnell coming out to her blocks, a champion so often undersung.

She had 'Superstar' written across her T-shirt, but this would always be a logo not self-proclamation. At 5ft 6in and 8st 11lb, she is a slight, unflamboyant figure as the eight women come out for the 400 metres hurdles. Her fair hair is pulled back into a black-ribboned bun, her face as composed as if she was on the commuter train to the Hatton Garden accountants where she still works two days a week.

Such suburban thoughts now get jolted back to big-race countdown reality. Gunnell does a very unsuburban thing. She walks over to the yellow starting blocks in lane four. Puts her little purple satchel on the track behind her, squats down, folds herself back until the head is cushioned and then shuts out the world in eyes- closed, yoga-like trance.

'I had been feeling a bit too relaxed,' she said afterwards. 'I didn't feel nervous like I should so I wanted to pull in on myself to focus on what was ahead.' For 90 seconds our finest ever 400m hurdler lay still as stone. Then the eyes opened, the head rose, the stare fixed very hard on the mid-distance, the knees and thighs began to vibrate in readiness and you got the message loud and clear. This athlete knows what it is doing.

Other Olympic medal hopes may go to Barcelona flashier, noisier, and more exciting. But none will travel more organised nor in better spirits than Gunnell. She has worked for, dreamed of this. You could even say she was bred for it.

Les and Rosemary Gunnell had both been enthusiastic county athletes when Sally was born at their Essex farmhouse near Chigwell. 'We never pushed her,' Rosemary said last week, 'but right from primary school you could see that she was very athletic. We just supported her but she is really a product of the school and club system and of her coach Bruce Longdon.'

Gunnell is back up on her feet and is peeling off the black overslacks. The legs are long for the body, not heavily muscled but not long-distance scrawny either. She has a sky-blue, short-cut, one- piece running suit over a yellow bodice. She steps back from her blocks and the announcer introduces the runners to the crowd.

There are the usual one-sentence biographies. There are fellow Britons Louise Fraser and Gowry Retchakan. But they are calling out the runner in lane four, 'silver medallist in Tokyo, British and Commonwealth record holder.' As her name is called to resounding cheers, so Gunnell jerks her arms aloft in Pavlovian reaction. But her expression never flickered. Her mind was out ahead.

'I was telling myself to go off hard,' she said later. 'To run tall down the back straight. To hit it hard on the turn. To concentrate.' There is no self-obsession when she talks like that but you recognise the experience in her voice. Remember how far she has come.

Her mother recalls the early days with Essex Juniors; Gunnell winning the long jump at the English Schools, at the National Championship. Then moving through the heptathlon to the 100m hurdles. The kick of Commonwealth gold at Edinburgh in 1986. The runner now standing in lane four had been through a lot of this before.

She had also thought of why she wanted to be here still. Only a semi-finalist in the 1987 World Championship she and her long- serving coach Longdon realised a move up to 400m was the only chance of scaling the highest peak. But after making the Olympic final in 1988 she was only sixth in the European in 1990. 'I realised how much I had to work,' she said. Last year's silver in Tokyo was rich fruit of her labours.

The starter's tannoyed voice called them to their marks with an almost conspiratorial menace. Gunnell stretched her fingers far forward to touch the track and then folded her feet and ankles and knees beneath her. There were yellow rubber spikes beneath her Mizuno shoes, her slender gold chain hung down across the point of the chin, a yellow tress of hair tumbled down to her fingers. You or I might have brushed them away. Gunnell did not feel a thing.

She was just five metres from us, a lifetime of conditioning and intent packed into a single frame. The gun went and she came up off the blocks more like a bounding deer than a rifle shot. For this is 400m hurdles, this is where you have to think. Ten 2ft 6in flights set 35 metres apart; 40 metres run-in, 45 metres, 23-stride run- up, 15 strides between hurdles to give a left leg lead up to hurdle six then 16 strides alternate lead for the last four home. That is the idea but it is now too late to count.

Myrtle Bothma, the South African in a yellow tunic, has gone off fast in lane five, so too the tall red- clad Kim Batten on the wide outside. As they take the first Gunnell rises fractionally behind them.

Down the back stretch her rhythm begins to flow. The left shoe comes up very far and straight in front of her, the legs seem to rotate right up above the hips. By the sixth hurdle she has clearly pulled back Bothma, by the seventh, as the shortened stride means the right leg leads, she comes up half a stride ahead of Batten on the outside.

The crown of the bend now and Gunnell is very much in control. At the eighth she comes up with the left leg again, at the ninth with the right, proof that the 16-stride pattern is working. The only apparent battle is for the minor placings. Retchakan has fought close to Bothma on the inside but it is Batten on the outer who runs through to take second a respectful half-second behind Gunnell's 54.4sec.

As she pulls up, the mask finally cracks and an easy, ordinary girl's smile spreads across the professional face. She is set to join us in the commentary box but as she picks her warm-up kit out of those plastic launderette baskets runners use, a blue-blazered, white- flannel official taps her on the shoulder. It is urine sample time. Not the easiest, instant process when you have just run your fastest lap of the year.

Up among the headphones Kriss Akabusi's coach Mike Whittingham has joined John Rawlings and the rest of the excellent Radio 5 team. He thinks Gunnell would like to have gone a second quicker (her best time is 53.16) to make herself feel more confident against America's No 1, Sandra Farmer-Patrick. When nature has finally called the lady does not disagree.

Some of us greenhorns had not noticed that it had been her right leg that had led again at the final hurdle. She had cut down to 17 strides not 16. 'You must not get too obsessed with these things,' she says, 'but I would certainly want to be able to come home in 16. I have the strength, but between now and the Olympics I need to work at the speed. The great thing about this event is that there are always things you can sharpen.'

She sits in on the final races of the evening, she answers questions about the challenge ahead, of the honour of being women's captain, of the point of the Olympics. Between now and the snuffing out of the flame there will be much cynical talk. But not from Gunnell.

On Thursday she was at the Buckingham Palace sportsmen's garden party. A week before she was having her wedding dress fitted ready for the big day on 18 October. Long before the groupies had finished mobbing Steve Backley after his final massive throw into the Crystal Palace night, Gunnell and her fiance Jim Bigg were motoring back to their home in Brighton.

Treasure her while we can.

(Photograph omitted)