CLEAR­ING THE NEXT HUR­DLE

She’s a su­per­star hur­dler, but ath­let­ics isn’t the only thing on Sally Pear­son’s mind, as Ellen Whinnett dis­cov­ers

The Sunday Times - - NEWS -

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 says. “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 I meet Pear­son, 30, in­side a ho­tel lobby in Zurich, she was 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-year-old 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 has taken a break from her train­ing, and will be­gin build­ing up again late this month 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 12.59sec. 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 Zurich clocked in at 12.55.

This string of hon­ours and su­pe­rior ath­letic abil­ity give Pear­son well-earned brag­ging rights. But, af­ter all these years, she re­mains the downto-earth 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.

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.

Sally Pear­son is no au­tom­a­ton go­ing 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.

In any event, time is still on her side. Elite ath­letes have lim­ited ca­reers — their bod­ies can’t take the pun­ish­ment for­ever. “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.” 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. 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 so pop­u­lar at home. Yes, she says, Aus­tralians like sport­ing he­roes hum­ble. Yet, she says: “They also like a lar­rikin. They like an un­der­dog . . . but they also like a win­ner.”

Twenty 20 vi­sion: Sally Pear­son, pic­tured at Scar­bor­ough Beach, hopes to ex­tend her ca­reer to the 2020 Olympics. Pic­ture: Steve Fer­rier Inset: at the 2014 Com­mon­wealth Games.

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