Five years ago Sally Pearson was on top of the world. The Australian 100m hurdler had just claimed the Olympic title in London, to add to the gold medal she won at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu the year before. She was the dominant force in sprint hurdling, and looked set to be the standard bearer for the event for many years to come.
Then it went so badly wrong. In 2013 she tore her hamstring twice, but managed to regain fitness in time to take the silver medal at the IAAF World Championships Moscow 2013. Then in 2015, a fall in the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome left her with what doctors described as a bone explosion in her wrist, forcing her to miss the World Championships in Beijing that year. Her injury woes continued into 2016, when another hamstring tear ruled her out of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Such adversity would have been too much to take for many.
After all, she had achieved almost everything of note in the sport and had nothing left to prove. However, the determined Australian wouldn’t give up the hope that one day she could make it back to the top step of the podium at a global championship, and last Saturday, in the same stadium that saw her finest hour in 2012, Pearson claimed the gold medal in the 100m hurdles at the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
“I don’t even know how to feel, I’m just numb at the moment,” she said. “The first thing that comes to my mind is that I’m proud, so proud. Every single emotion you can think of that you hold in your body just came out over that finish line.”
“From 2013 onwards I’ve had injuries year after year, so it was great to come out here knowing I haven’t been injured this year and that I’ve done everything I possibly can, and left no stone unturned to get here. I remember somebody telling me that I can become the world champion again and I didn’t feel awkward about it.”
KEEPING HER COOL
Entering the championships, USA’s Kendra Harrison was seen as the overwhelming favourite to take gold in London. The world record holder had been in dominant form, clocking four of the six fastest times of 2017, including a world lead of 12.28. However, just like her semi-final, when she sneaked through as a fastest non-automatic qualifier, the US athlete clipped countless hurdles, enabling Pearson to come through to take victory in 12.59 seconds, with Harrison, in the lane beside her, finishing out of the medals in fourth.
“I started saying to myself: ‘she’s hitting hurdles, she’s hitting hurdles. Don’t you get into that rhythm, don’t you fall into hitting hurdles like her’. I just had to stop focusing on what other athletes were doing and what they were achieving because I knew what I was capable of and I just had to believe in myself.”
Having endured several years of severe injuries, the 30-year-old made a drastic change in August 2016, opting to coach herself in a bid to return to full fitness and to prevent suffering the same fate going forward.
“I wasn’t worried about writing the programme out,” she said. “I knew what I could and couldn’t handle. It was just a matter of asking myself ‘Am I going to do it right? Am I the right person to be doing this? Am I going to be able to listen to my body and be smart about it and look after it?’ I decided that I was just going to have to try, and if it doesn’t work out in the first few months, then I could just try find somebody who can help.”
Having achieved gold at the IAAF World Championships for the second time in her career, Pearson admits that, given what she has gone through to return to the top of her event, her success this year feels a little more special than her first triumph in Daegu six years ago.
“I was winning every race going into Daegu,” she said. “From a year out I was going to win those World Championships. Every medal is different and this one is very different to the rest of them, and feels particularly special. It felt a little like when I won silver at the 2008 Olympics with the pure excitement and celebration afterwards.”
With the gold medal from London secured, along with the emotional investment required to achieve this goal, many would forgive Pearson for calling a halt to her season, and making the journey back to Australia earlier. However, she is determined to race in Europe regularly over the next few weeks. She intends to run in the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Zurich later this month, followed by the IAAF World Challenge meet in Berlin, before finishing her season at the Great City Games on the streets of Gateshead. But before all that, she has a rare outing over 100m on the flat to look forward to at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham this Sunday.
“It wasn’t my idea,” she says with a smile. “My agent and husband just put me in it and said to just go and do it. I don’t have to train that way, and can just focus on another competition.”
The Commonwealth Games being held on home soil in Gold Coast will be Pearson’s focus for next year, but looking further ahead, she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of continuing to compete until the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“I love the idea of going to a third Olympics, after missing out on Rio,” she says. “But it’s another three years to go and it’s just a matter of whether my body can handle it. I’m 31 next month, so it’s all about being smarter and looking after myself.”
After her comeback in London, it would be foolhardy to write her off again.
James Sullivan for the IAAF