The 1992 Olympic champion recalls how she coped with the pressure to land the 1993 world title in Stuttgart – breaking the world record for good measure – after a far from perfect build-up
It’s very different being an Olympic champion. The year before, they’d say “she might get a medal” and you’re a bit of an underdog. Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the firing line and you’re public property. I put a lot of pressure on myself as well because I still felt that I had more to give with the Worlds coming up.
By winning the Olympics (Barcelona 1992), I still felt like I had more to prove. I was scared of failing, scared of not being that athlete, scared of whether I could actually do this again. Lots of distractions were going on as well, so it was very different.
I got caught up a bit in that Olympic bubble of doing things and events. I got to Christmas and panicked a bit. I just felt like I wasn’t as focused and I wasn’t in the sort of shape I wanted to be. That was why we didn’t do the indoor season that spring, got out of the country and went over to Tallahassee. I needed to go and just focus for a good few weeks and I went back to real slog work.
I knew I had a better race in me than the Olympics. I knew I could technically improve but I never ever thought about times. I thought I could maybe get close to 53 seconds but it was just about wanting to win that world championships and a gold medal two years back-to-back. That was my big thing.
I usually used to come out for my first races of the season really slow but I did a relay in Portsmouth and ran some ridiculous 400m flat leg of 49.9 seconds and shocked myself.
I never won grand prix events leading up to the Olympics – it was always Sandra Farmer-Patrick or somebody else – but, that summer, I kept winning and Sandra disappeared. I thought: “Okay, she’s obviously a bit worried about me, because I am actually in shape. But can I keep this going?” I was getting quite excited and normally I don’t get excited.
The training camp went really well. We tried to do everything the same that we’d done in Olympic year, so we went off to a little pre-training camp in Switzerland. That was all good.
Then I started to not feel very well. I just couldn’t believe it – I’d always been a box ticked person and everything has to be great. I wasn’t very good at having niggles and trying to race. I needed that confidence, almost, so it was a bit of a shocker, a bit of a disappointment and a bit of a “what the hell do I do?” scenario for a few days.
They put me on antibiotics and I did nothing for about three days. We decided not to make a decision – we didn’t have to until before the heats. I felt I had a lot to live up to, though.
I had this fear that I was so ill that I wouldn’t even get through the first round … as the Olympic champion. It was just horrific to think about. We thought: “What do we do? Do we pull out? Do we not start?” But I got slightly better the day before the heat. I didn’t have a temperature so much but I had a cough and a bunged-up nose and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to feel.
I just scraped through the heat and from the semis. I got myself a half-decent lane for the final. It was just 48 hours of switching off, fighting that doubting voice that was saying: “How are you going to run three rounds in a world championship, not feeling 100 per cent?”
Whereas at the Olympics, I was nervous, but I was confident that I was in great shape. Here, I was just like: “I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It wasn’t even on my mind to run fast. It was just to win. Sandra pushed me. She pushed me to run the time. In fact, I didn’t even know I’d broken the world record. I probably did the longest lap of honour ever, because I was just in shock. I was going to milk this because I didn’t do it the year before in the Olympics.
READ MORE: AW’s greatest race series
I was halfway down the back straight and then I heard somebody say that I’d broken the world record. The feeling was all very different. It was one of relief, very different to the Olympics. I was shocked at what I’d done physically and mentally. Everybody around me was like: “How did you do that?” I’d just run 52.74. It was mind blowing.
So many people break world records because of the money bonuses but I think people still really remember that race. It was probably the race of the championship because it was a world record with two people having a really good race.
That’s what sport is about, isn’t it? Two people pushing each other. It was the same with Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad in Tokyo last year.
That’s why it was so good. I was never a grand prix sort of person that could just say: “Right, I’m going go and try and break the world record tonight.” It just didn’t happen. I had to have the pressure.
» This article first appeared in the July issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here