Sanderson was born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica of Ghanaian ancestry. She later emigrated to Wolverhampton, England.
Member of Wolverhampton & Bilston Athletic Club coached initially in the progressive days by John Moogan, and, subsequently by National Track and Field Coach Wilf Paish. Sanderson was the UK's leading javelin thrower from the mid-1970s, winning silver in the 1978 European championships and gold in the Commonwealth Games three times (1978, 1986, 1990), but was eclipsed during the 1980s by the up-and-coming Fatima Whitbread, with whom she shared a long-standing rivalry.
When Sanderson won the gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in the javelin, becoming the first British woman ever to win Olympic gold in this event, her victory was quite unexpected. In the end, her career outlasted Whitbread's, and she competed at senior international level until 1996.
Her best performance in the javelin was 73.58 m (241 ft 4 3⁄4 in) set in Edinburgh on 26 March 1983.
Sanderson served as Vice-Chairman of Sport England from 1999 to 2005.
She ran an academy in Newham, London that helped to find and train athletes to represent Britain in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In September 2009 Sanderson registered her own charity sports academy carrying on her work alongside the established Newham Sports Academy. The name of the charity is the Tessa Sanderson Foundation and Academy. The charity is helping Sanderson to work on a wider basis to help other youngsters who are disabled and non disabled achieve their goals and creating a pathway and more opportunities not just in Newham but the wider areas of London and with a vision of a national roll out.
In April 2009 Sanderson again because of her work in the community made history again by organising the first 10K road run to run through the Olympic Park offering the community and other visitors to Newham the Host Borough of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games a fantastic birds eye view of the Olympic 2012 athletics stadium. The Newham Classic 10K was so successful that it takes place annually and has led to other active running events for anyone such as the City of London West Ham Park Runs which takes place most Sunday mornings in West Ham Park in the East End of London.
Sanderson was appointed as a board member of the Olympic Park Legacy Company chaired by Baroness Ford to oversee and help with the formation of the Olympic Park for the Newham community and people living in the East End of London.
Sanderson organised and was associated with the Redbridge 10k on 24 July 2011, which was the first ever run in the Borough of Redbridge.
In 1984, Sanderson made an appearance on Bullseye. In 1990's she worked as a sports reporter for Sky News. In 2005, she took part in the one-off special, Strictly African Dancing, as part of the Africa Lives season on the BBC. She was voted into third place by the viewers. Sanderson took part in the Dancing on Ice goes Gold program on ITV which was aired on 22 July 2012. She also took part in a one-off exclusive BBC Red Button episode of EastEnders which was aired on 16 July 2012.
Sanderson was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1985 New Year's Honours, following her Olympic gold, raised to Officer (OBE) in the 1998 New Year's Honours for her charity work, and to Commander (CBE) in the 2004 New Year's Honours for her services to Sport England.
Sanderson is an honorary graduate of the University of Wolverhampton and was made an Honorary Fellow of London South Bank University in 2004.
In 2004 Sanderson was awarded a Sunday Times Lifetime Achievement Award.
There is a housing estate named after her in her adopted home town of Wednesfield: Sanderson Park. It is located in the vicinity of the playing fields of her former school, Wards Bridge High School.
On 1 May 2010, Sanderson married Densign White, former Olympic Judo athlete, at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.10 Times AAs National Champion (1975–77, 1979–80, 1985, 1989–90, 1992 & 1996)
3 Times UK National Champion (1977-78 & 1997)
Notes:Results with a q, indicate overall position in qualifying round
At the World Cup competitions, Sanderson was representing Europe.