MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96 : Gunnell back in groove

The Atlanta Olympics: Redgrave the perfectionist looks stronger than ever as women's captain negotiates new barrier; Norman Fox talks to a hurdler intent on reclaiming her position as world No 1
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS HER international comeback day approaches, the British athletics team's most experienced and successful competitor will be as nervous as the youngest international newcomer. Aftermonths of agony both physical and mental, Sally Gunnell has begun to pick up the threads of regular training. But only in her first seriously testing race back, when Britain face France at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on 24 February, will she begin to discover whether she can regain her position as the world's No 1 hurdler.

Throughout the long period of recovery from the Achilles tendon and heel injuries that cost her most of last summer's events and saw her 400 metres hurdles world record fall to the American Kim Batten in the world championships in Gothenburg, her worry has been less the fear of a recurrence than the possible loss of motivation. Yet she would have been forgiven for resting on her sheaf of laurels and abandoning her career. Instead, her attitude was that "you're a long time retired".

Frustration has become her permanent enemy. "I didn't realise until I stopped running how much I was going to miss it. It was worst when I had to watch the world championships, but I believe I can get the world record back because when I broke it there wasn't the competition there is now. Also, when I broke it, I'd not properly recovered from a cold, so I'm sure I can improve it again."

Competition this summer would have been tough even without the burden of recovering from the injuries. Batten herself is likely to come under pressure from Sandra Farmer-Patrick, Tonja Buford, who also improved on Gunnell's world record when second in Gothenburg, and possibly the 400m world champion Marie-Jose Perec, although she has yet to master the hurdling technique.

The thought of Atlanta has kept Gunnell going: "It's beenfrustrating. I used to complain about training, but after the injuries I couldn't wait to get back. The work in the gym and the pool was necessary but boring." It had to be done because, almost literally, she had to learn to walk again before she could try to run.

In fact it was the years of competition and training, more than any sudden physical crisis, that caused the injuries. Wear and tear resulted in Achilles damage, and a bone spur had developed on her heel. A Swiss surgeon who had treated Sergei Bubka and Heike Drechsler for similar problems operated, and for a month the Olympic, world, Commonwealth and European champion could only walk with crutches.

It was as recently as this month that she took her first tentative strides on the track. She admits that she was not prepared for the pain and that there were moments when she seriously doubted whether a complete recovery was possible. On the other hand she thinks that provided her warm-weather training in South Africa, which begins soon, goes according to plan, the rest may prove to have had some beneficial effect - not physically, but in her attitude to the grind of training, which at the age of 28 had begun to pall. Enthusiasm has returned but she still intends coming back quietly, probably at the IAAF indoor meeting, in Birmingham on 10 February.

Above all, the loss of her world record has encouraged her to prepare for Atlanta with a fresh eagerness. She accepts that regaining past fitness may not be enough. She will almost certainly need to go beyond that because she anticipates that whoever wins Olympic gold will have to break the world record at least once. That was one of the reasons why she supported other well-known British athletes in their campaign to have next season's AAA championships, which are also the Olympic trials, restricted to British competitors, who have enough pressure without the fear of unnecessary elimination.

The AAA eventually and reluctantly gave in, accepting Gunnell's submission that to have prospective British Olympic team members lose their places by suffering defeat to foreign athletes in the AAA heats was a nonsense. Amid all the problems, setbacks, worries and fears, she remains the sensible champion in a sport that at times seems to gamble with its own credibility.