High-flier eyes the big goal

High-flier eyes the big goal

The World Athlete of the Year in 2011, Sally Pearson looks a cut above her rivals ahead of the London Games.

Aussie ace : Sally Pearson has been pursuing her goals with rare determination.

A determined mother and coach fuelled Australian Sally Pearson's rise to the pinnacle of world athletics. Now the hard-nosed hurdler plans to emulate another iron-willed countrywoman in Cathy Freeman to clinch gold at the London Olympics.

Freeman's emotional gold medal run in the 400 metres at the 2000 Sydney Games remains a misty-eyed memory for many Australians, including Pearson who watched it on television as a 14-year-old cherishing a similar dream.

She also watched the indigenous Australian's run at Atlanta four years earlier, feeling more crushed than happy about the silver medal for the then 23-year-old. Having won silver in the 100 metres hurdles in Beijing, and clinched a long-awaited World Championship gold at Daegu last year, Pearson knows something of the weight of expectation Freeman carried into Sydney.

The blonde 25-year-old now carries the burden as the "golden girl" of Australian athletics, a raging favourite for the Olympic title in London for a country whose hunger for track and field success is rarely sated. "Cathy's probably an inspiration to everyone but she hasn't inspired me to run faster, she's just someone to look up to and mimic everything she does because of what she did in Sydney," Pearson said.

"Everyone would love to be able to have that sort of pressure and to still come out in the end on top. I guess you try to copy what she does because she's the best Olympian Australia's had in my opinion.”

Absorbing the wisdom of Freeman has urged Pearson to confront the pressure head on and embrace it. "It's not going to go away," Athletics Australia's high performance manager Eric Hollingsworth said at the Melbourne Track Classic recently. "We've put in strategies to cope with the pressure, to make sure we're ready, make sure we understand it, understand where to draw the line, when enough's enough, what's our responsibility to the sport.

"Cathy and Sal get together, they go and have a coffee and they talk about it. Cathy was under the most pressure at an Olympic Games and she came through it."

While Pearson has credited Freeman for making her task clearer, the Sydney-born hurdler hardly wants for confidence as she contemplates the ultimate prize. Pearson won 15 out of 16 races last year to win the IAAF's Athlete of the Year, including the world title at Daegu where she thrashed the competition in the final with a time of 12.28 seconds, the fourth fastest on record for a woman.

American Dawn Harper, the reigning Olympic champion, managed only 12.54 seconds at Beijing, a time Pearson has already eclipsed this year with her 12.49 to win her pet event at the Melbourne Track Classic. Ominously for her main challengers in London, which include Harper and fellow American Lolo Jones, Pearson stormed to the win in a drizzle and on a spongy track. She then went on to win the 60M hurdles gold medal at the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul earlier this month.

Pearson's form has fuelled talk of a genuine crack at the world record of 12.21 held by Bulgaria's Yordanka Donkova at London or in the lead-up.

"She's a miracle girl at the moment, the 12.50 like that," gushed Hollingsworth. "She must be (close). She's got to be somewhere there when we get her into her full peak and she'd done another bit of base work and the momentum comes."

Dreamy days
Pearson has not always been so punctual. As a young girl competing at a junior athletics championship for her home state of Queensland, she nearly missed the start of her hurdles event while walking around the field in a daydream. She jammed herself onto the line at the last moment and won the under-13 event in the steamy northern city of Townsville in a meeting record, hitting a bunch of hurdles on the way. Had she missed it, she may have never have been spotted by her coach Sharon Hannan, who knew she had seen a rare talent and invited her to join her team.

Hannan, a former single mother who taught herself coaching through text books and never competed as an athlete, remains Pearson's coach to this day. Along with Pearson's mother Anne who raised her daughter alone and worked two jobs to allow her to pursue her dream, Hannan has helped the athlete defy the doubters time and again. "(My mother's) my number one fan and she's obviously put her life on hold for me to become the best athlete in the world," said Pearson. "My coach obviously has always believed in me more than I've believed in myself, and she pulled me through even with all the doubters that didn't believe in us and didn't believe in her coaching strategies. We got here today and she's got me to be the fourth fastest athlete in history, so we kind of stomped on those doubters and came through."

Pearson famously scrambled to receive her IAAF award in Monaco last November, after mistaking a police function at her hotel for the ceremony. She is confident everything is right on schedule now, however, but is impatient that the Games are still five months away.

"I'm going to stay grounded and make sure that I look after my body and stay fit and uninjured. That's just the key, I think, to get me on top of that podium," she said. "It feels like it's taking forever ... I've still got to get through the heats, the semis and got to make that final, then when that final comes I'm just not going to leave anything on the track."