“Aus­tralians like an un­der­dog”

Who needs Rio? Af­ter in­juries forced her out of last year’s Olympics, gold-medal­list hur­dler Sally Pear­son is now in the throes of an ex­tra­or­di­nary come­back

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy MICHAEL BUHOLZER In­ter­view ELLEN WHINNETT

Gold-medal­list hur­dler Sally Pear­son meets up with Stel­lar in Zürich to talk about her stun­ning come­back on the track, fight­ing her way back from in­jury and start­ing a fam­ily with hus­band Kieran.

Sally Pear­son has learnt many things on the long and of­ten painful road to the top of world sport. She has learnt how to fight back from in­juries that should have ended her ca­reer; to lis­ten to her body, and rest when she needed to heal. She has learnt how to talk to spon­sors and per­form in the glare of a very public spot­light. She has even learnt how to coach her­self.

And in the past year, the Olympic gold-medal­list hur­dler has also learnt that ter­ror­ism is a fact of life in Europe. “You don’t want to al­ways be look­ing over your shoul­der and check­ing ev­ery sin­gle per­son out that walks past you, and be­ing afraid to go on trains, be­cause that is ex­actly what [the ter­ror­ists] want,’’ Pear­son tells Stel­lar. “You’re al­ways cau­tious about be­ing in crowds and I am now, more so this year than any other year that I’ve trav­elled.”

Liv­ing abroad has helped Pear­son un­der­stand that Aus­tralia’s rel­a­tive im­mu­nity from ter­ror­ism should never be taken for granted. “[Aus­tralia is] quite a safe coun­try in terms of ter­ror­ism, but at the end of the day you still have to be care­ful. You don’t know where they’re go­ing to strike next. That’s the scary part. And I find it hard to not be scared, I guess, for that rea­son.’’

When Pear­son, 30, meets with Stel­lar in­side a ho­tel lobby in Zürich, she is just 24 hours away from win­ning the Di­a­mond League 100m hur­dles fi­nal, a pro­fes­sional event that will land her a $63,000 prize – enough to pay for her next year of travel and com­pe­ti­tion. It is not dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why, in the midst of pre­par­ing for another big sport­ing event, a topic like ter­ror­ism is top of mind. The Barcelona at­tacks, which killed 16 peo­ple in­clud­ing seven-yearold Aus­tralian boy Ju­lian Cad­man, hap­pened only days ear­lier. Two peo­ple had just been stabbed to death in Fin­land. And back in May, Pear­son was pre­par­ing for a race in Manch­ester when a ter­ror­ist det­o­nated a bomb 10 min­utes down the road at a pop con­cert, killing 22 adults and chil­dren.

Pear­son says she is proud to have played a tiny part in help­ing the trau­ma­tised city re­spond. “There were ques­tions about whether [the race] should go on,” Pear­son ex­plains. “For the safety, as well, but also re­spect for the vic­tims and the fam­i­lies.” Ul­ti­mately, the race was held, and Pear­son par­tic­i­pated. “That was re­ally nice, ac­tu­ally – a proud mo­ment for Manch­ester. And I’m glad I could be there to help them through it. I didn’t do much… but it showed them that they’re strong.’’

When Pear­son turns 31 this week, she will be fo­cused on the next big event – her home­town Com­mon­wealth Games on the Gold Coast in April next year. She is a Games am­bas­sador and will now take a break from her train­ing, and be­gin build­ing up again in late Septem­ber to be in peak con­di­tion in time for the 100m hur­dles event.

“It’s huge,” Pear­son says. “That’s what I’m look­ing for­ward to now.” Af­ter that, she may com­pete in the world cham­pi­onships again in 2019. And maybe, de­pend­ing on how her body holds up, one fi­nal visit to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. “I hope so – it all de­pends on how my body is go­ing,’’ she says. “If I can be at my best again, that would be fan­tas­tic to prob­a­bly fin­ish off my ca­reer.’’

And it’s been a pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary one. Pear­son won the 2011 and 2017 world cham­pi­onships, the 2012 Olympic gold and an Olympic sil­ver in 2008. In 2014, she was made a Mem­ber of the Or­der of Aus­tralia. And now she is inch­ing back to­wards her ca­reer-best form: in Au­gust, she ran 12.59 sec­onds in the world cham­pi­onships in Lon­don, six years af­ter first win­ning that event with a time of 12.28, the fourth fastest time in his­tory. Her win in Zürich clocked in at 12.55.

This string of honours and su­pe­rior ath­letic abil­ity give Pear­son wel­learned brag­ging rights. But, af­ter all these years, she re­mains the down-toearth Queens­lan­der who was first spot­ted by a coach as she blitzed the field in a Lit­tle Ath­let­ics meet­ing in Townsville, aged 12. Hus­band Kieran Pear­son, the high-school sweet­heart she mar­ried in 2010, trav­els with her and helps man­age her many com­mit­ments. There is no team of min­ders or ad­vis­ers tag­ging along. She did her own hair and make-up for Stel­lar’s photo shoot and, with the race fi­nal the next day, would not budge out of jeans and a comfy jacket from her spon­sor Adi­das.

The Pear­sons travel light – most no­tably with­out a coach, af­ter Pear­son made the de­ci­sion in 2016 that she would do it her­self.

“When I first started I sat there look­ing at a blank screen go­ing, ‘ What have you done?’’’ she re­calls. “[But] once I got writ­ing [a train­ing pro­gram], I just kept go­ing and go­ing and go­ing and go­ing.’’

This re­lent­less stamina has helped Pear­son over­come in­juries that would have de­stroyed many oth­ers – in­clud­ing a shat­tered wrist, ham­string tears and the Achilles prob­lems that forced her out of the Rio Olympics last year. Now that she’s back, Pear­son says “it’s go­ing well”. But she is also keen to re­mind every­one, “I worked hard to get here. It def­i­nitely didn’t start off that way. I had a lot of bro­ken bits to fix, get­ting back into train­ing and mak­ing sure my body wouldn’t fall apart again.’’

A video posted by Pear­son on so­cial me­dia shows her pow­er­ing through a set of push-ups, a heavy weight on her back. Look closely and you’ll see one of her arms isn’t straight – it

“I knew I loved what I did and that if I could get back to my best, then I am the best”

never will be again, af­ter she tripped on a hur­dle at the Di­a­mond League event in Rome two years ago.

The pho­to­graphs of her scream­ing in agony af­ter­wards tell the story of 12 bro­ken bones and a dis­lo­ca­tion. It has taken ev­ery ounce of her self-dis­ci­pline and de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­cover, and not just re­gain her fit­ness and form but also im­prove her times. It’s a com­mit­ment that of­ten sees her col­lapse on the ground or be­come phys­i­cally ill af­ter a heavy train­ing ses­sion.

Pear­son cred­its those early years of push­ing her­self as hard as she could with pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits to her as an older ath­lete. Back then, her mus­cles re­tained mem­ory and so could be fine-tuned more eas­ily. “It’s pretty amaz­ing how I can just in a few weeks’ time be pretty fit at a level I think is rea­son­ably high, and can do the work­load with­out dy­ing on the ground or vom­it­ing my guts up as much,” she says. “Not ev­ery­body does. My train­ing part­ner is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to what I am… he doesn’t vomit – ever. I’m so jeal­ous of him.”

Sally Pear­son is no au­tom­a­ton go­ing round and round a track. She is al­ways think­ing – about the next train­ing ses­sion, the trip to the physio, the ice baths, the mas­sage. Also the spon­sor’s ap­pear­ance, the me­dia com­mit­ment, the next race. And about one day start­ing a fam­ily.

“It’s some­thing I think about all the time,” Pear­son says, “and Kieran and I talk about some­times. We keep say­ing we love our life so much how it is. We’re pretty self­ish at the mo­ment, and I guess you can’t re­ally be too self­ish when you want to be par­ents. I sup­pose if you get preg­nant [then] it switches pretty quickly. We’ll know when we are both re­ally ready, that it will hap­pen. Right now? I don’t think we are.’’

“We’re pretty self­ish, and you can’t be when you want to be par­ents”

In any event, time is still on her side. Elite ath­letes have lim­ited ca­reers – their bod­ies can’t take the pun­ish­ment for­ever. Pear­son has thought hard about what comes af­ter sport, and how to avoid that dan­ger­ous pe­riod when newly re­tired ath­letes try to build a new life – some of them strug­gling to make the tran­si­tion and fall­ing into a cy­cle of de­pres­sion, al­co­hol and drug abuse as they lose their way.

“We ded­i­cate our child­hood, our teenage years, our early adult­hood to this – and then it’s gone,’’ she says. “What do you do for the rest of your work­ing years? Es­pe­cially as most of us haven’t made enough money to sur­vive for the rest of our lives.

“You’ve been the best in the world, then you go into a job where you’ve got to start at the bot­tom – lit­er­ally at the bot­tom – and work your way up again. And it’s like, ‘Do we have enough willpower to be able to do that?’ You’re never go­ing to find that same high, or that same adren­a­line rush, as you get when you were do­ing your sport.’’

Pear­son has spent four months on the road this year, and says her rou­tine “is a bit of a sham­bles’’. So she tries to put some or­der in her day and, no mat­ter where she is in the world, will have break­fast, go for a train­ing ses­sion and then eat what­ever she can find for lunch. Her train­ing is tightly man­aged, so it is sur­pris­ing to hear an ath­lete of her cal­i­bre so laid-back about diet.

“I don’t de­prive my­self of any­thing,” says Pear­son. “Ex­cept sweets. It’s not re­ally de­priv­ing my­self ei­ther – I had a piece of cho­co­late yes­ter­day.”

In the few weeks af­ter com­pe­ti­tion, train­ing winds down and Pear­son al­lows her body to re­cover, which means she and Kieran get to in­dulge in their favourite hobby: eat­ing out. Cel­e­brat­ing her achieve­ments, she says, in­volves “go­ing to a re­ally nice restau­rant and or­der­ing their spe­cialty, what­ever it is. We love go­ing out to eat. We go out to break­fast – a lot. And lunch – a lot. And din­ner! A lot.’’

In other words, the Pear­sons aren’t the only young cou­ple spend­ing their house de­posits on smashed av­o­cado; this is the kind of nor­mal­ity that has helped make her such a pop­u­lar fig­ure at home. Yes, she says, Aus­tralians pre­fer sport­ing he­roes to be hum­ble. But, she ar­gues, “They also like a lar­rikin. They like an un­der­dog… but they also like a win­ner.”

Dur­ing her il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer, Pear­son has em­bod­ied all of those traits at dif­fer­ent times. But if one has en­deared her to us most, it may be her grit – the de­ter­mi­na­tion that shines through ev­ery time she gets back on the track af­ter a dev­as­tat­ing in­jury or dis­ap­point­ment, and is on full dis­play as she basks in the glow of her come­back.

To those in the stands or watch­ing on TV at home, it is im­pres­sive. To Sally Pear­son, it is sim­ply another chal­lenge worth ac­cept­ing. “I just had to see if I could get back to my best and whether that was go­ing to be enough,” she says. “Deep down, I knew I loved what I did. And I knew that if I could get back to my best, then I am the best.”

GOLD STAN­DARD (clock­wise from above) Cham­pion hur­dler Sally Pear­son at the Stel­lar shoot in Zürich; win­ning the 100m hur­dle event at the 2017 world cham­pi­onships in Lon­don last month; with hus­band Kieran Pear­son show­ing off her cham­pi­onship gold; another stun­ning win at the Di­a­mond League meet in Zürich on Au­gust 24.

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