Make-or-break day for Gunnell's title hopes

Injury is threatening to undermine the season of Britain's outstanding female athlete. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
Today Sally Gunnell will go for a run. More of a jog, really - no more than 15 minutes' worth. But it will be an important jog, because it will indicate whether she is likely to have an athletics life this year.

After three years surmounting every challenge offered, with the Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth titles in her possession, Gunnell is facing a new and discomfitingly unfamiliar task. For the first time since she took up the sport at the age of 12, she is injured. A different, scary challenge.

There have been stresses and strains over the years obviously. Three weeks before winning the 1992 Olympic title a thigh injury obliged her to pull out of a meeting at Gateshead. But what she faces now - an inter- related problem with the bursa in her right heel and her Achilles tendon - is of a different order.

"I'm one of those people who never miss a day's training," she said. "That's my thing when I get to a major championship. I know I've done the work. I know no-one can beat me."

Whatever happens in the next month or so, that certain knowledge will be denied her this year. A nasty day at the Bromley track, a fortnight ago tomorrow, saw to that.

There were only three dramatis personae: Sally, her husband Jon Bigg, and her long time coach Bruce Longden. Having broken down twice before this year - once in January, a problem which put an end to her indoor season, and once in April, when her Achilles tendon halted training in Florida - she was nursing the hope that she was back on track.

Longden asked her to round off her session with four hurdles drills. It was in the approach to the very last hurdle that something went amiss.

"I'd just done the drill," recalled Gunnell. "And I landed, and I said, `I'm not sure about that.' You don't want to admit the worst, but..."

Longden remembers the moment well, too. "It was pretty gruesome, I can assure you. I think it really did knock her. But it wasn't a breakdown situation. It was, `right, let's get something sorted out'. We made a decision there and then that we needed a second opinion."

At the direction of Gunnell's agent, Robert Wagner, that opinion was sought from a Swiss specialist who had previously diagnosed heel injuries for world champions such as Heike Drechsler and Sergei Bubka. Gunnell's man in Zurich has been putting her through a series of exercises - all taped for Longden's benefit - which have shown up a previously undetected imbalance in her body.

Hope is there, without doubt. But the chances of Gunnell defending her world title successfully, no matter that the 1993 silver medallist Sandra Farmer-Patrick has failed to qualify and that the 400 metres world champion, Marie-Jose Perec, who won over hurdles in Lille on Saturday, is having problems accommodating her long strides to the event, look slim.

Having had to postpone her planned debut on the flat at Nuremberg last Thursday, Gunnell's plan now is to run hurdles races at Monte Carlo and perhaps Sestriere before the world championships in August, having run a couple of flat races beforehand. She more than anyone knows that that schedule is cutting it fine. And the hints are there that she may be looking beyond Gothenburg.

"I'm still hoping to go out to the worlds," she said. "If I can win it, I'll go. But I won't go out for second or third place. I don't see why I should go out there just for people to see me running on the track. The most important thing is to get myself ready for next year's Olympics. If I am not ready for Gothenburg, I will get back into training and come out afterwards."

If she does that, Longden foresees up to eight high quality races which could see her into world record territory. But for the moment, the emphasis is on Gunnell taking the first, difficult step back.

"It's on your mind all through the day," Gunnell said. "You look up something in your diary and see all the races you have marked down to do. It's my life, especially at this time of year.

Her husband, Jon, is only too aware of all the difficulties she faces. His highly promising career as a middle distance runner has been blighted by Achilles tendon trouble for nearly five years. He has advised her against having further cortisone injections after the one she had in January when she was first troubled by pain in her heel.

"Jon has been a tower of strength," she said. "He has been with me on days when I am breaking down because I can't see what I am going to do. After that time at Bromley, I thought to myself, I've picked myself up so many times in the past, can I do it again?"

The situation may be new to Gunnell, but Longden, who used to coach the Olympic and world decathlon champion Daley Thompson, has been this way before. Six weeks before he won the Olympic title in 1980, Thompson had a groin injury which remained a secret from the Press. But while Longden had to pursue the same basic policy of working round the injury - Thompson had to leave the rotational events such as the discus. Gunnell has been exercising in the swimming pool and running on the flat - the mental approach has not been the same.

"Sally is a different kind of character from Daley," Longden said. "She has the same belief in herself, but she does not have the same brash approach. With Sally the thing is to be as normal as possible. It's quite a traumatic thing for her, and it's just a matter of keeping in constant communication."

Longden's approach seems to be working. "A little while ago I was asked when I wanted to retire and I was talking about the year after the Olympics," Gunnell said. "Now I'm starting to think - can I ever retire? There's nothing going through my mind saying I've had my day. It's just working the other way. I am desperate to get back."