She was the first Black British woman to win Olympic gold and she has competed in a record six games. Tessa Sanderson has since gone on to share her drive and determination to help other young athletes succeed. The University of Wolverhampton honorary graduate told WLV Dialogue the secret of her success.
“Winning that Olympic gold it is an athlete’s dream. It was a feeling like no other.” Tessa Sanderson recalls the moment she realised she was an Olympic champion in Los Angeles in 1984 as if it was yesterday.
It was the pinnacle of a glittering career in athletics – the momentous night in LA must have seemed an age away from her childhood growing up in Wednesfield.
Having been born in Jamaica, a six-year-old Tessa moved to the town during the sixties, attending Wood End Primary and then Ward’s Bridge High School.
It was there that PE teacher, Barbara Richards recognised her sporting talents – with Tessa excelling in netball, rounders and hockey, but also athletics.
Barbara persuaded Tessa’s parents that it wouldn’t interfere with her schoolwork and took her along to training sessions at Wolverhampton and Bilston Athletic Club.
And the rest as they say is history.
Although starting out as a multi-eventer she soon settled on javelin and by the age of 16 she had won her first national English School title in 1972. A year later she won the title again and by 1974 she was competing in her first major international tournament for England at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.
Four years on she won her first major title – Commonwealth Gold in Edmonton – it was the first of three golds, the others following in 1986 in Edinburgh and 1990 in Auckland.
But it is Tessa’s Olympic career that stands out among her sporting accolades. In 1984 she was only fourth best in the world on paper and just returning from a two year injury lay-off.
She was also locked in a long-running battle for supremacy with Great Britain team mate, Fatima Whitbread.
Tessa said: “I wasn’t expected to win in ‘84. I’d been out injured and was just coming back. I’d finished fourth at the World Championships behind Fatima and the Finnish girl Tiina Lillak.
“But I knew I’d been throwing well and with my first throw in the final I won it with 69.56m. The Finnish girl came up short in her last attempt and it was those 56cm that made the difference.
“I went into my last throw knowing I had won gold. It was unbelievable. Some people wouldn’t have bothered throwing the last round knowing that but I wanted it. I wanted to celebrate the win. “It was a great feeling – and you think – what can I possibly achieve after this? I’d beaten the Finnish girl and even more so I’d beaten Fatima.
“We had a fierce rivalry at the time and there was no love lost but in a way that spurred me on. It’s all water under a bridge now but back then it was intense. To be fair she was the first one who came to congratulate me.”
Next came the moment every athlete dreams of – standing on the podium while the national anthem is played with an Olympic gold medal draped around your neck.
“All you can think is your time has come, it is like the whole world stands still. The emotions just kick in and there were tears – I didn’t even realise I was crying, then I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks.
“It is something that I will never forget.”
That was one of six Olympic Games that Tessa competed in. She had already appeared in two – 1976 in Montreal where she finished a highly credible fifth and 1980 in Moscow, by the time she grabbed gold on America’s West Coast.
In Seoul in 1988 she disappointingly failed to qualify for the final, and in 1992 in Barcelona she just missed out on a medal, finishing fourth. After initially retiring following that competition Tessa made a final sojourn, coming out of retirement and qualifying to compete in a sixth Games in Atlanta in 1996. A year later she finally hung up her javelin for good.
“Los Angeles was obviously the highlight of my career but there were others such as the Commonwealth Games in ‘86 and Barcelona ‘92 where I wasn’t expected to do well and finished fourth.
“Other things also stand out though like going to Buckingham Palace to be recognised for my achievements.”
Tessa has received the OBE, CBE and MBE and far from enjoying a leisurely retirement she has thrown herself head first into helping others raise their aspirations. But she baulks at the suggestion that her sporting career has opened doors for her.
“I’ve had to open doors myself. I’ve had nothing put in front of me on a plate. I’ve had to earn everything and work hard for it – even now.
“Looking back I don’t really think I got the respect and the accolades the achievement deserved. I was the first Black British woman to win an Olympic gold.
“I wasn’t the favourite but I was confident. I was a lone soldier but it was not a blue ribbon event.
“Even now I think the response to the win was mediocre. No massive glory. I’ve had to earn everything. I just put my best foot forward and went for it.
“Athletics has dramatically changed since I was competing but I think it’s changed for the better. I was working 9-5 and training and competing alongside that. The money has changed, standards have changed and there’s the technology involved.
“It’s been professionalised. There’s no hint of amateurism anymore.
“People often ask me would I win gold in today’s era – I’ve had my time, my moment. That’s good enough for me.
“But the athletes of today are not just athletes they’re models and catwalk queens and marketing tools. They have to be to survive.”
Tessa’s focus is now firmly on helping provide the next generation of gold medal winners. In 2009 she set up the Tessa Sanderson Foundation and Academy in the London borough of Newham, the heartland of this summer’s sporting extravaganza.
The aim was to give kids in the urban areas the opportunity to get into sport and have access to facilities and coaching.
“It is a huge event but for me the big thing will be the legacy it leaves behind. That’s the most important thing. It’s not only about things like the sports facilities but the affect it has on nurturing young talent and getting kids involved.”