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
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.