Plagued by injuries, fuelled by success: Sally Pearson retires a true athletics great

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Despite many injuries, Pearson’s career often featured triumph on the big occasion. Photo: Public.Resource.Org via Flickr

It was a career that simply had it all.

As she bids farewell to athletics, the Olympic, world and Commonwealth champion Sally Pearson can sit safe in the knowledge that every title possible to win sits gleaming proudly in her illustrious trophy cabinet.

The 32-year-old can look back on a hugely satisfying career that saw her become one of the greatest ever 100m hurdlers and quite possibly Australia’s best ever athlete. But despite all the success, Pearson’s career was one that frustrated her more often than she would have liked.

Her last ever title, an incredible gold medal at the 2017 World Championships in London (below), came just over a month after admitting that she had been seriously contemplating retirement after missing the chance to defend her Olympic title in 2016 due to injury.

A ‘bone explosion’ in her left forearm after clashing with a hurdle during a race, all-but ended her 2015 season, while 2016 saw a promising comeback cruelly halted by a hamstring tear in training.

It was perhaps the darkest period in her career, making her seriously question whether she had any future in the sport. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this any more, I hate it, why am I allowing myself to go through this struggle and this disappointment when it’s so easy to just not do it?’ ”

However, life both on and off the track had never been ‘easy’ for Pearson, even as a young kid making her very first steps in the sport. Growing up on the Gold Coast after moving from Sydney and then Queensland, Pearson was raised in somewhat difficult circumstances, supported by a determined single mother who grafted tirelessly in two jobs to help her daughter fulfil her huge athletic potential.

Even after sitting through three bus journeys just to get to training, the young upstart would always make sure she left everything on the track, purely focussed on her dream of one day becoming the Olympic champion.

Her determination was soon rewarded, after she overcame the first of many injury setbacks to storm to world youth gold in 2003 at the age of just 16, before representing her country in the 4x100m relay at the senior World Championships in Paris.

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However, as with many young athletes heading into the senior ranks, Pearson had some issues to overcome before she could begin establishing herself as a major player. A World Junior Championships campaign the next year saw her grab bronze in the 100m, while losing out on medals altogether in the 100m hurdles and 4x100m relay.

Her major individual senior debut at the 2006 Commonwealth games then ended in very mixed circumstances, crashing out of the 100m hurdles after clattering a barrier, before achieving a consolation in the form of a 4x100m relay bronze; her first ever senior championship medal.

It was a tough start to life as a senior athlete, after what had been a very successful stint in the junior ranks. However, this was all part of learning the trade and slowly moulding into an athlete that could go toe-to-toe with the best the sport had to offer.

Sure enough, after the early teething troubles came the golden years, with Pearson’s Olympic debut in 2008 ending in a silver medal in the 100m hurdles. It came as a shock to everyone, including herself.

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She then proved that the Olympic medal was far from a fluke, as a string of major title followed first at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 before dominating the World Championships indoors and outdoors with two very convincing golds both achieved in Oceanian record times.

This saw Pearson head to the London Olympics in 2012 for her big dream moment, now entering as one of the major favourites for the title by contrast to the surprise package who grabbed silver four years earlier.

The final ended in truly dramatic circumstances, with Pearson battling all the way against her rival Dawn Harper, with both crossing the line close together before a short, but anxious wait to see who had come out on top.

After staring at the screen for what felt like an eternity, the dream moment finally arrived. Her name came up first, leaving the new Olympic champion to collapse to the ground overcome with emotion.

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This was perhaps the biggest moment of them all for Sally Pearson. The moment that the talented young girl brought up in a single-parent household had finally claimed sport’s biggest possible prize.

Her remaining years in the sport after this were mixed. Both her world indoor and outdoor title defences ended in close silver medals, while another Commonwealth gold in 2014 (below) was followed by two big injuries that left her out of action for two years in her period where she contemplated retirement.

But true to form and despite already winning just about every major title possible, Pearson still had one more moment of magic up her sleeve.

Her big comeback in 2017 ended with yet another sensational championship win, with Pearson edging out Dawn Harper-Nelson to reach the line in first. Lucky London struck again for Sally.

The multiple global medallist was still delighted, screaming ‘oh my god!’ multiple times once crossing the finish line as she soaked in what had perhaps been her greatest return of all. The dogged determination and Aussie grit built up since her younger days was strong enough to bring her through even the darkest of setbacks.

Admittedly, Pearson’s career didn’t end as ideally as it could have. There was a great opportunity to compete in her home town at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, in a stadium literally minutes up the road from where she lived. It could have been the perfect way to sign off, bringing the cycle back to where her eventful time in the sport had all started.

However, injury once again reared its ugly head, meaning she missed out. 16 months later, Pearson has announced that the curtain is finally drawing on a thrilling career at the top.

It may not be the ideal way. But then again, Sally Pearson has time and time again triumphed in what appeared to be less-than-ideal circumstances. Throughout it all, the talented, plucky and gutsy Australian dealt with it the same way that any 100m hurdler does, clearing hurdle after hurdle both on and off the track to finally retire as one of the sport’s true greats.

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First published on: 6 August, 2019 3:01 pm

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