“Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me, right?”
No-one seemed more surprised by Sally Pearson’s second place in the 2008 Beijing Olympics than Sally Pearson. Snatching the silver in a hotly contested 100m hurdle final in which the favourite - American Lolo Jones - failed to place, Pearson stormed onto the world stage. Four years later, she followed it up with gold in London.
“That high will stay with me forever,” she said at the time.
... I tipped over the edge in my training.Anne McLellan
To her—and much of Australia’s—heartbreak, Pearson will not get a chance to reach that high in Rio. After injuring her hamstring towards the end of a training session on June 27, Pearson, 29, ruled herself out of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. The devastating injury came just five weeks before the opening ceremony.
“There was no awareness, no signs that this was going to happen,” said Pearson, who was born in Sydney and raised by single mum Anne McLellan. “Everyone pushes themselves to the limit. It’s just a matter of whether you tip over the edge or not and unfortunately I tipped over the edge in my training.”
Pearson, who hasn’t ruled out the next Games in Tokyo, now has her eye on the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast—where she lives with husband Kieran Pearson and golden retrievers Oscar and Toby. “There’s not many chances you get to run in a major championship 10 minutes up the road from your house,” she said.
Surely no-one in Olympic history has celebrated second-place quite like this. Beijing 2008, and a 21-year-old Sally McLellan crosses the line in the final of the 100m hurdles with a gape of disbelief at her rivals. A painful wait for the photo to determine the place, and then an outpouring of joy. Then, one of the greatest post-race interviews ever. “Is this real?” she asked her interviewer. “Can you believe it? Did you see me?”
Yes, Sally, we saw you. We saw you coming for five years, since your gold at the 2003 World Youth Championships. We saw you race in the 4x100 relay at the World Championships a month later, at the age of 16. Our hopes crashed with you when you fell at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, but then we saw you make the semi finals in both the 100m flat sprint and hurdles at the World Championships in Osaka in 2007. You arrived in Beijing with your focus on the hurdles. Under the guidance of your coach since childhood, Sharon Hannan, you were technically superb, explosive out of the blocks, feeding off the crowd—never daunted by the big occasion. Your times were improving with every appearance.
Then that final. And this post-race analysis: “I was standing at the start ... Did you see how pumped I was? I was probably more pumped than I’ve ever been in my entire life. And I just got out ... I don’t even know how I got out. I got over the hurdles, I see a girl go past me, just keep running your own race ... And I did. I actually ran my own race for once.”
Is this real? Can you believe it? Did you see me?Sally McLellan
She had seen Cathy Freeman run and win in Sydney in 2000—and set her ambitions on doing the same thing. Now, with Beijing out of the way, she was just getting started.
She reappeared in 2010 as Sally Pearson, after marrying longtime partner Kieran, and set out on a scintillating winning streak. Gold at the Delhi Commonwealth Games. Then the big one in 2011—gold at the World Championships in South Korea, in a fabulous time, the fourth fastest in history. In the lead-up to the London Olympics she won an incredible 32 races from 34 starts. She went into those Games as the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year—her male equivalent: Usain Bolt.
All eyes were on Pearson on that rainy London night, Australia’s best hope in one of the Olympics’ feature events. Her rivals from Beijing were back as well—Lolo Jones, seeking redemption after clipping a hurdle when she had the race won; Dawn Harper, who had tipped Sally out of the gold. But this time, they were the ones counting on a Pearson mistake, because Sally knew if she ran to her form, and got over the hurdles, the race was hers.
In her two lead-up races, she had feathered the eighth jump both times. As she crouched for the start, her mind was thinking ahead to that eighth leap, which suddenly seemed a few centimetres higher than the rest.
But then that start of hers: a Pearson specialty. No-one explodes out of the blocks and clears the first hurdle better. She led from the start. Then, in her own words, “skied” the eighth jump, cleared the rest, then surged to the line, almost toppling out of control with her lunge.
She thought she had it won—but again, there was the agonising wait for confirmation. The screen lit up—with her name at the top. Olympic gold. Her scream of ecstasy pierced the arena. She fell to her knees, rolled onto her back as the tears flowed. Her time, a new Olympic record. Still, there has been more to do. Gold again at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, all with eyes on further prizes.
Edited extract from Australia’s Sporting Heroes, published by Pacific Magazines. (rrp $12.99). austsportingheroes.com.au