Athletics: Gunnell starts new chapter

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The Independent Online
Sally Gunnell, who bade farewell to the track here last night in a novelty race, finished with what she described as "the final honour" - a tap on the shoulder from a man holding a big red book.

As a crowd of 9,110 looked on appreciatively as Michael Aspel intoned the familiar words: "It may be the end of your career, but it is not the end of your evening because, Sally Gunnell, This Is Your Life."

With which, British athletics' bemused leading lady - "I'm going to miss the party!" - was escorted away for a flight to London, where the BBC programme was recorded last night.

At 31, Britain's most successful female athlete, who three years ago held Olympic, world, Commonwealth and European titles as well as the 400m hurdles world record, is facing up to the rest of her life with several projects in mind. But she knows a change will not be easy.

"It's going to be hard for the next six months adjusting my life," she said. "There are tears in my eyes. I can't believe it has come to an end after all these years. I have achieved everything I wanted to - although if I was greedy I would have said I wanted another Olympic gold."

The injuries which undermined that ambition and also ruined 1995 and 1997, finally wore down Gunnell's desire to carry on. She is now looking forward to a career in television and planning to start a family with her husband, Jon Bigg.

One other interest is reflected in the way Gunnell intends to spend her first day of the rest of her life. She has booked a riding lesson today. Soon she may join her husband in local show jumping events riding the horse they own, Corky. And the horse they co-own, Eric, is being guided towards an Olympic appearance in three years' time.

The last race for Gunnell in a BUPA Grand Prix which marked the end of the domestic season was a farcical affair - a mixed 200 metres relay. Gunnell, running the last leg, finished clear as she has done so many times since winning the Olympic title in 1992. But on this occasion she had been freed by the lumbering efforts of her team's opponents on the third leg - a collection of throwers including Robert Weir, Britain's 19st discus champion.

Gunnell had considered running a more testing event, but could not trust the calf injury which had forced her premature retirement from last month's World Championships - better to go on a lighthearted note rather than a traumatic one.

Gunnell's announcement that last night would mark the end of her career served to intensify the interest in the athlete whom some believe can eventually take her place, Allison Curbishley. The 21-year-old from Teesside, who this year has won 400m titles at the European Under-23 Championships and World University Games, has been spoken of by Colin Jackson and Britain's chief coach, Malcolm Arnold, as "the next Sally Gunnell".

It is an onerous burden to carry and Curbishley, who plans to resume 400m hurdles running in earnest next season, regularly acknowledges it. "I can understand all the hype about the next Sally Gunnell, but it's a lot of pressure for an athlete," she said.

"I feel sorry for her, I really do," Gunnell said. "She is going to be under enormous pressure and I think people are expecting too much of her too soon.

"I am telling her not to get caught up in it all. I think it will be two to three years before she starts to show what she can really do. But in the meantime she could get some great publicity."

Last night, in windy conditions that tugged flags flying at half-mast to mark Princess Diana's death, Curbishley had her work cut out in a 400m that included Sandie Richards, the world silver medallist. Curbishley finished nearly 10 metres behind the Jamaican, recording 52.90sec. The winning time was 51.36.

The British performance of the night came from Nick Buckfield, fifth in the World Championships pole vault final last month, who raised his British record by four centimetres to 5.75m in finishing second to the world silver medalist, Maksim Tarasov, of Russia.

The evening proved anticlimactic for the local hero Jonathan Edwards. The world triple jump record holder, who returned from injury to earn a silver medal in last month's World Championships, looked weary as he finished in second place behind Britain's Francis Agyepong, who jumped 16.73m. Edwards could manage no more than 16.59.

There was also a sense of anticlimax in the 3,000m where Brendan Foster's stadium record of 7:35.2 - then a world record as he marked the opening of the stadium in 1974 - remained unchallenged by Kenya's Moses Kiptanui. The former world record holder finished more than 10 seconds outside Foster's time in 7:45.55. And the man Kiptanui coaches, multiple world record holder Daniel Komen, also had a relatively subdued night as he finished second in the 1500m to Canada's Graham Hood, who won in 3:39.44, nearly 10 seconds slower than Komen's best this year.