HAYLEY McLean may not have been to a Commonwealth Games before, but she knows, should she need any advice, at the other end of the phone there is someone who has been there, seen it and won it.
The 19-year-old 400m hurdler from Stanford-le-Hope has been getting words of wisdom from her hero Sally Gunnell, one of Britain’s all-time greats, in the run-up to the Games.
And what started out as a phone call from Gunnell offering support has turned into a blossoming friendship between two women who share plenty of similarities.
Former Olympic and World 400m hurdles champion Gunnell grew up in Essex, like McLean, before her career exploded and she became one of British sports most famous faces.
Now Gunnell is offering support to McLean as she prepares to follow in her hero’s path.
“I couldn’t quite believe it when she first rang me, to be honest,” McLean said. “She is my hero and by the end of our conversation I couldn’t hold it together, I was just crying, not quite believing what was happening.”
McLean and Gunnell were put in contact by Julie Longden, the widow of Bruce Longden, who coached Gunnell throughout her career.
At first, McLean thought it would just be a one-off conversation, but the pair have hit it off and have been on the phone to each other regularly ever since.
“Originally, the phone call was set up to get my confidence back,” explained McLean. “I was upset about the inconsistency of my performances.
“I ran 58.99s in Switzerland a month of so ago and I thought I was going backwards.
“So Sally called and we ended up chatting for about three-quarters of an hour.
“I thought that it might be a quick phone call and that might be it, but Sally really wanted to help, she wants to give people advice and since then we have talked nearly every day.”
Gunnell has been watching McLean’s races online and giving her input – something the teenage Chelmsford AC athlete says has given her a huge confidence boost.
“It’s really nice to talk to someone who has hurdled. She has been through it all. I can talk tactics, stride lengths, anything about hurdling with her and she knows what I’m talking about because she has been there and done it.
Sally Gunnell celebrates winning gold in the 100m hurdles at the 1986 Commonwealth Games
“And she is someone I can really relate to. One of the first things she said was that, like me, she had come through the Essex system. She had competed for Essex at the English Schools, started off as a multi-eventer, like me, went into sprint hurdles, like me, and then moved on to 400m hurdles.
“She is my hero. I’m too young to have seen her race live but I’ve watched her races back on the internet and I’ve read her book which is a big inspiration to me.”
Among the races McLean has watched back is Gunnell’s two Commonwealth gold medals, from 1990 and 1994 – one of five golds Gunnell won over three Commonwealth Games – and she says she still can’t believe she will be racing on the same stage.
And she will be hoping to calm some of the nerves by having another chat with Gunnell before she steps on to the track.
“It still feels weird whenever I see the name ‘Sally G’ flash up on my phone as an incoming call,” laughed McLean. “It doesn’t seem real, but I’m so grateful for what she has done for me.”
GETTING TO KNOW...HAYLEY McLEAN
1) WHO OR WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TAKE UP THE SPORT?
Probably my primary school, Giffards in Corringham. I did the sports days and it went from there.
2) WHAT WILL BE THE LAST SONG YOU LISTEN TO BEFORE YOU COMPETE?
I always listen to Champion by Chipmunk and Chris Brown...only because I like the lyrics!
3) WHAT OTHER SPORT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE GOOD AT? Football
4) WHAT SUPERSTITIONS DO YOU HAVE? Loads! I make sure I don’t walk under any scaffolding on the day of a competition, well, any time really. If I see one magpie on its own, I have to salute it. I wear four-leaf clover earrings and necklace and I have a lucky monkey called Marcel who I take every where. I once got five minutes from a competition in Birmingham and made my mum turn back when I realised I had forgotten him!
5) WHO IS YOUR HERO? Sally Gunnell
6) WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PRE-COMPETITION MEAL? Nothing exciting any more unfortunately. Probably something healthy like chicken and rice, or fish and rice.
7) WHAT ‘BAD FOODS’ CAN’T YOU RESIST? McDonald’s chicken nuggets.
8) WHAT OTHER SPORT WOULD YOU LIKE TO WATCH AT THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES? Gymnastics.
HAYLEY'S RACE DIARY
HAYLEY McLean will race in the 400m hurdles heats at the Games on Tuesday, from 12.50pm.
If she successfully gets through her heat, she will appear in the semi-finals next Wednesday at 9.40pm with the final taking place the next day at 8.25pm.
All races will be live on the BBC.