Published July 18, 2012
BRISBANE, Australia – It was an exuberant celebration that launched her run to world titles both indoors and out, and helped give Sally Pearson so much more to lose at the London Olympics.
In her mind, the uninhibited leaping and screaming and the "Oh My God! Is this real?" television interview broadcast live back to Australia -- complete with an expletive -- after her unexpected Olympic silver medal in Beijing belong to an athlete by another name, in a different time and place.
That was Sally McLellan, the 2008 edition, holding the green and gold pompoms and draped in the Australian flag.
Now married, now the world champion and now the favorite to win, she's not content to settle for second best.
"Everyone thinks about my silver medal at Beijing, but you have to remember that I won the world championships last year, the Commonwealth Games before that and won a world indoor title this year," Pearson said during her last meet on home soil in the leadup to London. "So I am already one step ahead of where I should be in my career."
Until last weekend, Pearson hadn't lost a race in 2012 and had only lost in one of her previous 33 starts at the 100-meter hurdles.
Her coach blamed a slip and fall in wet conditions in a warmup for making Pearson a little nervous about her back in the final at Crystal Palace, where she finished second to American hurdler Kellie Wells. Pearson offered only a two-sentence comment after the race before she disappeared from the stadium, leaving her coach to explain how Australia's best hope for a track and field gold medal at the London Olympics was defeated only weeks before the big race.
After a day out at a Surrey theme park with her husband Keiran, Pearson was back in a talking mood and told Australian media this week that she didn't have any injury concerns.
"I'm still a bit disappointed, but it just shows me that I am only human," Pearson told News Limited of the Crystal Palace defeat. "That these girls only beat me while I was not at my best, but when I am on fire they can't come near me."
The history of the Olympic women's sprint hurdles is littered with stories of beaten favorites, a fact Pearson is only too aware of.
She was trailing favorite Lolo Jones in the final in Beijing when the American hit the penultimate hurdle, lost her balance and slipped from first to seventh. Dawn Harper instead took gold.
In one of the more spectacular tumbles in the Olympic event, Gail Devers was clearly leading in 1992 when she hit the last hurdle and stumbled over the line in fifth place -- narrowly missing a chance for a 100 sprint and hurdles double.
The hiccup at Crystal Palace was described widely as a reality check for Pearson in news bulletins Down Under, no doubt a timely reminder for Pearson of the perils of hurdling.
Sharon Hannon, who has been coaching Pearson since 1999, didn't try to brush it off as anything but a defeat.
"I'm probably as disappointed as Sally is and she's pretty gutted," Hannon said after the Crystal Palace loss, which came only a week after Pearson posted a season-leading time of 12.40 seconds in the Diamond League meet in Paris. "Today wasn't ideal but she's had a great year. Everything we have done all year, anything that we have measured has been better than previous years, so I'm really quite confident she's going to be fine."
The 100-meter hurdles world record has stood since 1988, when Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria ran 12.21. Pearson's world championship-winning time of 12.28 in Daegu last September was the fastest time in almost 20 years. And that came amid a run of 19 consecutive race wins before stumbling over a hurdle in her last race of the year in Brussels. Her performances in 2011 earned her the IAAF's Female Athlete of the Year award, which she collected on the same night that Usain Bolt accepted the men's award.
As far back as March, when Athletics Australia's high performance manager Eric Hollingsworth was hinting that the long-standing world record could fall at the Olympics if Pearson hits peak form, Hannon was trying to keep 2012 in perspective for her athlete.
"We are preparing to win gold in the 100 hurdles at the London Olympics. Will the winning time matter? No," Hannon wrote in a column for the national daily newspaper during the national trials. "What really matters is crossing the finish line first. It is our intention for Sally to cross the line first in the heats on Aug. 6, and again in the semifinals and finals on Aug. 7. `Project Gold' is about all three races."
Hannon has worked on Pearson's strength and the result is a more toned physique. Images of Pearson in a crouch start position in a network of Australian newspapers this week show her bulging shoulders, her long hair out and with a look of intense seriousness on her face.
Some of her last public statements before she left her home in Queensland state for Europe echoed the emphasis on business and highlighted a difference in approach between 2008 and now.
"I am not going out there to get silver -- I am out there to get gold," she said. "I can't guarantee that I will win but I can guarantee I will put (everything) into every race.
"I was confident at the world championships, so why not be quietly confident this time around?"