Athletics: Gunnell goes gunning for her new goals: Britain's golden hurdler ups her work-rate as she prepares to take on the world again. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
STORED safely inside Sally Gunnell's new home on the outskirts of Brighton is a very thick pile of reports and articles acclaiming her Olympic victory.

'I haven't read them yet,' she said. 'They are something I will be able to look back on. Probably when I'm finished. Perhaps before then.'

Choosing the appropriate moment to bask in this tangible celebration of her success is one of the smaller problems presented by last summer's supreme effort in Barcelona. The large and pressing question is: how can she follow it?

'To be honest, it's going to be a very hard season for her,' Gunnell's husband, Jon Bigg, said. 'To win the Olympics was the big thing she always wanted to do. And now she's done it . . .'

In previous years, Gunnell would have had more chance to come to terms with what she has achieved, and what else remained to be done. But the adoption of a biennial world championships means that she is now focusing her attention on this summer's 400 metres hurdles in Stuttgart. For the elite athlete these days, there is no hiding place.

Gunnell's task of reproducing Olympic success one year on appears all the harder when one considers how those who won world titles in the 1991 world championships fared last year; none of the male champions won in Barcelona, and only three of the women.

So what is a girl to do? Goals. Goals are the answer. Speaking yesterday in London, after the announcement of a one-year personal sponsorship deal with Avon cosmetics, she reflected upon the challenge of the forthcoming season, which will start for her next month in the European Relay Challenge at Portsmouth.

'A lot of people have said to me: 'You've won the Olympic gold medal. Why not retire now?' But I've got so many goals I still want to achieve.

'I have realistic goals. And dream goals. A realistic goal for me is to win the gold medal in Stuttgart and break the world record.'

Aha . . . and what did that leave for the dream goal? 'Oh, that would be winning in a ridiculous time, like Kevin Young did in the men's 400 hurdles in Barcelona.'

There has never been anything remotely boastful about Gunnell: 'I have never really looked on myself as being a celebrity or a personality,' she said. 'I could sit down and talk to anybody. I don't think I've changed. I hope I haven't changed.' It is an attitude which lends weight to what is a very ambitious statement of intent.

Whether she can fulfil her ambitions in a season where, as she acknowledges, she will have to cope with the novel pressure of being expected to win every race is a matter for conjecture.

But there are some powerful reasons to think she can. For all Gunnell's patent niceness, there is a resilient core to her. In a sport where competitors wax and wane, she is a stayer who has progressed steadily and single-mindedly ever since she arrived on the international scene seven years ago by winning the Commonwealth 100m title.

Her training this year has been increased by five per cent on the level it stood at last year - her coach, Bruce Longden, is getting her to run that little bit more in repetitions, jog back down hills that little bit faster.

She is also able to approach her work in financial security. Yesterday's deal, allied with her shoe and clothing contract with Mizuno, has not put her in the Liz McColgan league, but it means that she has no need to gear her racing towards earning appearance fees this season. She will run just six 400m hurdles races before Stuttgart, culminating in the one at Zurich.

'The money is not something you get until you are right at the very top, if you are a woman,' she said. 'Before this year, even though I had run the third-fastest 400 metres hurdles ever, I got nothing at all. It is unfair, but it's the way of the world.'

However, the crucial factor for her this summer, as in all her other summers, is her mental strength, which she estimates is 70 per cent of being a winning athlete. Already, she is rehearsing the Stuttgart final in her mind. 'You run it from lane one, then lane eight, with different people around you. You run it in the pouring rain. Or hitting hurdles. Or having a false start. And each time you come to the line, you win.'

She laughs at how easy it sounds.

(Photograph omitted)

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