Tuesday 7th October 2008 by S. McGown
Athlete Sally Gunnell told students of her determination to win Olympic gold during her speech at Brooke Weston's Prize Giving. She visualised winning the crucial race thousands of times and said that mental preparation was just as important as physical training. Ms Gunnell realised she was good at running at just five years old, but it wasn't until she was 14 and watching the Moscow Olympic Games that she set herself the goal of competing there one day. She said: 'I had a dream, I wanted to go to the Olympics. And I was prepared to do whatever it took to get me there.'
Years of training then followed, but after success at the Commonwealth Games her coach dropped a bombshell. Ms Gunnell said: ' I won the Commonwealth Games and I just thought this is great, this is the start of it all. I was 20 years old and I thought right, I'm going into world-class athletics. My coach said “Great, Sally. But if you want to be the best in the world you're in the wrong event.” And I said what do you mean I'm in the wrong event I've just won the Commonwealth Games? He said “If you want to really challenge yourself then you've got to really get out of your comfort zone.” I decided that that's what I was going to be good at, the 400 hurdles. Forget the 100 hurdles. And that was a very important message; if you don't challenge yourself at some point in your life how are you going to know what you're good at?'
Sally enlisted the help of the best sports nutritionists to get her into optimum condition. 'For the last four years leading up to the Barcelona Olympics I didn't have one chocolate bar, I didn't have one glass of alcohol. I was sitting there with one of those juicing machines and putting in carrots and wheatgrass and all these sort of things, eating loads of chicken and pasta and rice. I wanted to be that perfect athlete to be the best that I could to give myself that chance.'
Her coach calculated that she gave her best performance during the 13th race of her season and so he organised her training schedule so she was at her peak for the Olympic event. Sally said: 'What I admired most about my coach is that over those years he knew to the second what training sessions to give me, what races I needed to do to get my body right for that one run because I knew that on 2 August 1992 that that was my only day that I was ever going to have a chance to win that gold medal. Four years earlier and I was too young and four years later I probably would have been too old. So I knew I had to get it right.'
After losing focus in one of her races and coming in second when she was in line for a gold medal she was advised by fellow athlete David Hemery to use visualisation. Sally said: 'Every day I'd go through my race seeing myself running that perfect race. Hearing that gun and going hard over the first couple of hurdles, driving down the back, hitting it hard, making sure that I was coming home in the right position and hurdling absolutely correctly …The key to it all was making sure that I saw myself cross that line and win every single time. Probably leading up to Barcelona I used to do this probably 50, 60 or 70 times a day and go through it over and over again. I believe that the more you do it, the more familiar you get to it. I stood in that line in Barcelona I would probably say that 70 per cent of it was in the mind. There were athletes that were stronger than me, that were faster than me but …I was so mentally prepared for that race, I was so hungry for it. I so wanted that and I totally believed in myself.'
She told the students that after her success it took a while for the reality to set in: 'I'd think why me? Why have I got that? How did a farmer's daughter from Essex become an Olympic champion? It took a good couple of months for it to finally sink in and I thought why not? I was prepared to go out there and go for something that I really believed I could do. I was prepared to work harder. I was prepared probably to sacrifice a certain amount in my life to get me there.'
She told the Brooke Weston students: 'Life is all about opportunities, being given chances, being given that moment to be able to excel at something, find something you are good at whether that's sport, academic or music and this school seems to cover absolutely everything. I must admit as I walked around and had a tour I was just amazed. I thought this school had been open for just a couple of years. You just make the most of every little thing that you have going on here. It's absolutely brilliant.
Her parting words to them were: 'Really what I would say to you is to go out there, get a dream and get your gold medal in life. Because it's all ahead of you, as long as you believe in yourself you can go out there and achieve whatever you want.'