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UK Athletics

Tessa sanderson

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Tessa Sanderson

Full Name: Theresa Ione Sanderson

Date of Birth: 14 March 1956

Born: St Elizabeth, Jamaica.

Club: Wolverhampton & Bilston, Borough of Hounslow.

Coach(s): Wilf Paish, Brian Roberts, Rosemary Morgan.


Career summary


Ageless Wonder

It is probably fitting that Tessa Sanderson decided to retire from athletics at the World Championships in 1997, because the event was staged in Athens, the home of the modern Olympics.

In a fabulous career, spanning 61 internationals, Sanderson had earned her own place in Olympic history 12 months earlier when she competed in Atlanta. It was her sixth appearance at the Games, equalling that of any Olympic woman and becoming the only Briton to achieve such a landmark, and while she finished 14 th then, it was on the previous occasion when the sport’s greatest show was in America that Sanderson became a national heroine. Twelve years earlier, in Los Angeles in 1984, Sanderson won gold - the only Briton to achieve earn such a success in the javelin.


Early Days

Sanderson was born in Jamaica where she was brought up by her grandmother before heading to Wolverhampton to be with her parents who had based themselves in England, having headed to these shores to establish their own careers.

As a teenager she progressed extremely quickly having joined her local club - Wolverhampton and Bilston AC -  and while the javelin became her prime discipline, she was also a multi-eventer of an extremely high standard. She became English Schools Intermediate javelin champion in 1972 when she was 16 before taking the senior title the following summer and within 12 months she was making her senior international debut. That came at the at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch - and impressive it was too when she finished fifth; she was 13 th , also, at the European Championships in Rome. After five UK junior records up to 55.04m in 1974, Sanderson set the first of her 10 UK records at the javelin with 56.14m in 1976, increasing the mark to 73.58m in 1983, with the last five being Commonwealth records aswell. In 1976, she made her Olympic debut in Montreal, being the youngest competitor in the final at the age of 20 and finishing a respectable ninth with with a throw of 57m. But two years later, her first major title arrived when she became Commonwealth champion in Edmonton. By then she had established herself in sensational fashion having climbed to No 2 in the world with a throw of 67.20m in Dublin three years earlier and at the Games she threw 61.34m to win gold ahead of two Canadians: Alison Hayward. who won silver with 54.52m, and Laurie Kern, who was third with 53.60m. It was the first time in 16 years that England had won this event, since Sue Platt in 1962.

Sanderson’s glory began a love affair with the Commonwealths where she won this title on three occasions - the only athlete to achieve such a success - and never more spectacularly than in Edinburgh in 1986. In 1978, she won silver in the European Championships in Athens, the first British woman to achieve make the podium at this event, when she threw 62.40m as Ruth Fuchs, of East Germany, won gold with 69.16m.


From Moscow To LA

Amid the controversy of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, where more than 50 countries boycotted the competition, Sanderson left Russia after a disastrous performance where she did not even make the final. But she would be back - and in some style too.

LA, four years later, could not come quick enough for Sanderson, but it was worth the wait. By the Games, she had finished fourth at the first World Championships in Helsinki with 64.76m, beaten by Finland's Tiina Lillak, who won gold with 70.82m to beat Britain’s other star of the event, Fatima Whitbread, who was second with 69.14m. Sanderson would emerge spectacularly to beat them both at the Olympics. Setting down a marker is always a key for a javelin thrower and Sanderson did just that in Los Angeles, securing the title with her first attempt. She delivered the spear to 69.56m and it was not enough for Olympic gold. Lillak was second with 69m and Whitbread third with 67.14m. As she stood on the podium, the tears flowed and it remains a marvellous image. She was the first British black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, but it was not the last the sport would see of her on this stage; infact, she was only halfway through her Olympic cycle.


Edinburgh and Whitbread

In a superb career, Sanderson also set Commonwealth heptathlon records of 5857 and 6125 points in 1981; she was also the top British heptathlete in 1981, and she was ranked in the top six at both 100m and 400m hurdles. Between 1973 to 1992 she was the UK’s No1 javelin thrower on 13 occasions and seven times she was No 2, often trading places with her great rival with Fatima Whitbread. Although Whitbread was superior between 1984 and 1987, overall Sanderson had a 27-18 advantage in their head-to-head clashes between 1977 and 1988.None were more memorable than at the Meadowbank Stadium in 1986 when Sanderson pipped Whitbread to gold in an astonishing competition at the Commonwealth Games. Aptly named The Tessa and Fats Show by one newspaper, Sanderson won it in the penultimate round with 69.80m to overtake Whitbread’s 68.54m; as the winner celebrated, the silver-medallist sat on the ground in despair. It was sport showing its greatest emotion.

Whitbread gained her revenge at the World Championships the following summer when she won gold in 76.54m and Sanderson was fourth, as she had been in Helsinki, with 67.54m. Incredibly, the topsy-turvy extent of her career was shown once again when she came to defend her Olympic title. She had been suffering with injury and thus it affected her when, like Moscow, she failed to make the final in Seoul. But Sanderson was back on the top of the rostrum at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990 when she won gold for the third time - and 12 years after first taking this title - with 65.72m. In 1992, she was fourth at the Olympics before winning the World Cup when she then announced that she was retiring. She became a TV presenter with Sky News, but made a remarkable return at the age of 40 in 1996 with the aim of raising £1 million for charity. Sanderson improved the world over-40 record from 51.84m to 58.18m and 60.64m in her first two competitive throws at Bedford on May 18, 1996 and later improved this record three more times to 64.06m. She made the Olympic team for Atlanta where she did not qualify for the final - but breaking those appearance records along the way - before bowing out the following summer in Athens. In 1985, she was awarded the MBE , advanced to OBE in 1998 and CBE in 2004 in recognition of her work as vice-chairman of Sport England since 1999.


International Championships (Javelin)

1973: 12th European Juniors

1974: 5th Commonwealth Games, 13th Europeans

1976: 9th Olympics

1977: 3rd World Cup

1978: 1st Commonwealth Games, 2nd Europeans

1980: dnq Olympics

1983: 4th Worlds

1984: 1st Olympics

1986: 1st Commonwealth Games

1987: 4th Worlds

1988: dnq 21st Olympics

1990: 1st Commonwealth Games, 11th Europeans

1992: 4th Olympics, 1st World Cup

1996: dnq 14th Olympics

1997: dnq 18th Worlds

European Cup: 1975- 7, 1977- 2, 1979- 3, 1981- 2, 1989- 3, 1991- 1

UK Internationals: 61 (1974-97)


National Championships

Won UK javelin 1977, 1978 and 1997 and ten WAAA titles, 1975-7, 1979-80, 1985, 1989-90, 1992 and 1996; Inters JT 1971-2..

Personal bests

Javelin 73.58 (1983), 200m 24.89 (1981), 400m 57.3 (1972), 800m 2:26.20 (1981), 100mh 13.46 (1981), 400mh 60.46 (1977), HJ 1.69 (1973), LJ 5.97 (1981), SP 13.27 (1981), Hep 6125 (1981).

Indoors: 60mh 8.5 (1977), Pen 3623 (1973).