'I never thought of running as a career

31st October 2003 at 00:00
. I just loved that feeling of winning, of being good at something'

I went to Chigwell county primary, which was a 200-metre walk across my dad's fields. He was an arable farmer so the school was literally surrounded by his land. I used to be playing in the school field and Dad would be in the field behind working in his tractor. I just loved it; it was a little village school and all my friends lived nearby.

My first memories are as a five-year-old, winning a ball on sports day.

When I look at some of the cine film, I am miles ahead in the egg and spoon and beanbag races - I just seemed to have natural ability. In kiss chase I was always able to run away from the boys, but I could catch the ones I wanted to.

My favourite teacher there was Mrs Kay. She was a class teacher and she ran all the sport in the school. She coached us in netball, rounders, swimming and athletics. I'll always remember her coming up to me when I was about 11 and saying: "You're very talented, maybe you should join a club - athletics or gymnastics, you're good at both of them."

I thought I'd do gymnastics because I'd just been watching Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut at the Olympics and thinking how glamorous it seemed. A friend said she was going to the athletics club and did I want to come. So the pair of us joined Essex Ladies Athletic Club.

Mrs Kay didn't look as if she did much sport, but she loved it. I remember her as a big, jolly woman but quite old school, and strict. She made all the girls do handstands to make sure you had your gym knickers on. She had so much time for us. I remember her being there at 8am waiting for the children. Then we'd have netball practice at lunchtime and after school she'd drive us to district sports - on top of all her schoolwork.

When I was 11 I went to West Hatch high school. It was okay. People say they're the best years of your life, but they weren't for me. I was obsessed by sports and running. I would spend the whole time thinking:

"When can I go out and train?" School just seemed to get in the way. I had very understanding teachers. Many a morning I had to do my homework from the night before or had to leave early on a Friday to go on an international trip. But they never put me off or said it was affecting my schoolwork, which it obviously did.

At 14 I was spotted and invited to go to Crystal Palace twice a week to train with a group of top international athletes. Bruce Longden was my coach from 14 until I retired.

My nickname at school was Grasshopper because I had very long, skinny, springy legs and I started off as a long jumper. I went on to pentathlon, and heptathlon, specialised in the 100 metre hurdles around 1984, then moved up to the 400 metre hurdles in 1988.

By the time I got to the sixth form I thought a temping secretarial job would allow me to go off and race. I never thought of running as a career.

I just loved that feeling of winning, of being good at something. I never wanted to make a lot of money out of it, it was just something I enjoyed.

Sport is a great leveller. Whatever your class, background or race, you stand out there on the line or on the pitch and you're all the same. The whole thing about non-competitiveness in school sport drives me mad because life is very competitive. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and a lot of that you learn from sport.

When I did This Is Your Life they tried to get in touch with Mrs Kay, and that's when I found out that she had passed away. She was probably in her fifties when she was teaching me. It would have been lovely to have met her again. People in the village used to say she would be glued to the telly watching me, but I don't think she ever knew it was all down to her.

Retired athlete Sally Gunnell was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1966 Born Chigwell, Essex

1971 Attends Chigwell primary school

1976 West Hatch high school

1986 Wins gold in 100m hurdles at Commonwealth games

1990 Wins Commonwealth golds in 400m hurdles and 400m relay

1992 Takes gold medal in 400m hurdles at Barcelona Olympics

1993 Breaks world record to win gold at World championships. Adds European and Commonwealth golds the following year

1997 Retires from athletics

1998 Awarded OBE

1999 Becomes sports commentator for BBC

2003 Co-hosts sports talent show Born To Win. The final will be broadcast tomorrow; www.bbc.co.ukborntowin

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