THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Bridging the generation gap

She is 40 years old and until last week had not competed for four years, but her eyes are set on a record sixth Olympic Games. Tessa Sanderson talks to Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online
Sitting in the foyer of Waltham Forest Pool and Track after her training session, Tessa Sanderson greets the schoolchildren who wander over for autographs with a practised smile and a flourishing signature.

A woman asks her if she would be able to hand out prizes at a forthcoming sports day. Politely, but without a moment's hesitation, she replies that she is having to cut down a lot of her appearances because she is training for the Olympics. "But thanks anyway for asking and that. All righty? OK."

She begins to speak about the imminent prospect of a sixth Olympic appearance, equalling the all-time record for a woman athlete. Suddenly she realises she is being watched from the pool observation window near her table by a small boy in goggles, who goggles for as long as his breath holds out, then rises from view before returning with another lungful.

Like something out of a Bill Forsyth film, the scene offers a surreal variation on the theme of life in a goldfish bowl. This time the careful smile disintegrates to a raucous laugh as Tessa the Media Personality gives way to Tessa the Sport.

At the age of 40, four years after she first retired from athletics, Sanderson is the centre of attraction again and she loves it. She also deserves it. Since being persuaded to compete once again to help raise pounds 1m for the Children in Hospital charity, she has spent six months reacquainting herself with a throwing technique which has brought her one Olympic and three Commonwealth javelin titles in an international career which began in 1973.

"When I was first asked to come back and try to compete in the Olympics," she recalled, "I just burst out laughing. I said: 'You have got to be bloody joking. Do you realise I haven't competed for the best part of four years. Do you realise what you are asking?"

It is, of course, a hugely beneficial PR move for Sanderson. But the suggestion that she has simply been missing the limelight appears, well, uncharitable given the hugely beneficial potential of the initiative and the real gamble with her reputation which this steelworker's daughter from Wolverhampton has taken.

The gamble paid off at a discouragingly wet and windy Bedford stadium nine days ago when, in her first competition since September 1992, Sanderson surpassed the Olympic qualifying distance of 60 metres not once but three times.

Barring injury, her selection for Atlanta seems assured. The British Athletic Federation confirmed her standing last week by selecting her as the javelin representative at next weekend's European Cup in Madrid. There, Sanderson will compete alongside athletes who were not even born when she made her first European Cup appearance in 1977.

The generation gap became disturbingly obvious to Sanderson at Bedford. Unusually for her, she had had difficulty in sleeping in the days leading up to the event, and when she got to the stadium she was beset by equally unusual feelings of diffidence.

"I went into that damned hall and it was, like, so new to me again. I felt a little bit scared in a way. I sat down in a little corner. I wanted to go up to everyone and say 'Hi!' like I always do. But half of the faces I didn't recognise."

Her first throw, not surprisingly, was mistimed. But it provoked her into recovering her old competitive stance. "A surge of anger went through me," she said. "I thought 'Come on!' Then I started to put the fear behind me. After I'd finished throwing they announced that I had broken the world veteran record. I had to laugh at that. I am 40, and so what? I'm loving it."

For all that, the years between 36 and 40, during which time she has worked on extending her work in television and radio presenting, have provided their share of experiences which she has not loved.

In 1994, her first shop - based in an Ilford shopping centre and selling aerobics clothes which included her own designs - closed less than a year after opening. She also suffered a highly public humiliation when her partner, Derrick Evans, split with her after five years together and went on to establish himself in a television career as breakfast TV's Mr Motivator, working out with the stars, branching out into documentary projects - all the kind of things, in fact, to which Sanderson aspires...

Her face hardens as she recalls that time. "I had a downfall in my personal life, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made. If a relationship's not good, get out. That's my strategy. It was rubbish. So leave it in the bin."

In fact, she did more than get out - she got even, in an article she sold to The Sun last year giving her side of the break-up.

Sanderson is no stranger to tabloid controversy. Her supposed tryst with Linford Christie before the 1988 Olympics made the front and back pages. Many column inches, too, were devoted to her long-running feud with her fellow British javelin thrower, Fatima Whitbread, world champion in 1987, whom she claimed with some justification had received preferential treatment than herself and greater financial rewards.

She feels she did not make the most of her Olympic success in 1984, and blamed the British Federation's then promotions officer, Andy Norman, accusing him of weighting things in favour of Whitbread, who is now his fiancee. "Fatima had the sponsors, I had to get a job," she said. "I knew I had to fight for everything."

Now, however, she finds herself back in the centre of things while her old rival, who announced a comeback two years ago but was unable to return to throwing, must remain on the outside.

Bedford stadium, where she effectively assured herself of an Atlanta appearance, has a plaque in its reception testifying that it was opened in 1993 by Fatima Whitbread MBE. The irony was not lost on Sanderson. "Life's a bitch," she said, with a wide grin.

Professionally, however, Sanderson still gives the impression that she is fighting for everything. Her media career is moving along, with television and radio appearances, and a recent spell - as it were - as the Fairy Godmother in pantomime at Lewisham Theatre.

But there is an occasional glimpse of insecurity. Mention that Britain's 800m runner, Diane Modahl, has done work with BBC North West as part of a Media Studies degree seems to throw her for a moment. "North West? Where's that? Manchester? I see, I see..."

She is defensive too of her latest business venture, which involves selling miniature replicas of the FA Cup by mail order: "It's fine. Like any of these things it takes time to get off the ground."

The suggestion that athletics is something she does supremely well, and that she must have missed it in her time away, receives a markedly neutral response. "There is more to my life than athletics," she said. "There are things to think about like marriage and having a family."

Right now, though, she does not have anyone particular in mind. "Two marriage proposals have come to me," she confided, rather in the manner of a Jane Austen heroine. "I have some very, very nice male friends. But," she added with a conspiratorial grin, "I'm not in love."

If she does have children, you feel she will have to readjust her life quite dramatically because her current lifestyle is based on the efforts of a team of people around her upon whom she feels secure enough to depend with child-like faith.

Her manager, David Hahn, has been with her since 1988; her coach, the former British international thrower Brian Roberts, has known her since 1973; and her elder sister Pat, who lives 15 minutes down the road from her in Clayhall, effectively keeps house for her.

"Pat and I are incredibly close," she said. "She prepares all my meals for me, she does all my ironing. She runs the whole shebang. We are family, and she knows I am on a mission."

When Sanderson talks about her sister's four children, her affection is obvious. "I see them every day," she says. "The three boys go to school down the road, and Pat brings Rachael over to wake me up in the mornings."

When Sanderson contacted her coach to say she wanted to get back into training, he was cautious in his response. "I didn't want her to come back and for it not to work," Roberts recalled. "But she said to me 'I really, really know I can do it.' I don't believe she would be in this position if she had not had three years off. She's coming back mentally refreshed - she's like a young athlete. And she is much more confident in herself than she was in 1984."

Sanderson is a stone lighter than she was when she won the Olympic title in Los Angeles. But her intention is to work on her speed and technique rather than trying to put the weight back on.

"I will never be as strong as I was in '84," she said. "But there's no need. My technique is hanging in there. Hopefully by July it will be silky smooth."

She believes she can be throwing 68, 69 metres in Atlanta - which could be enough for a top three finish. "If I did come away with a medal," she said, "it would be a fantastic buzz."

Then, she thinks, there would have to be an update of her biography. And a move into acting. Or perhaps a film appearance...