The Sunday Interview - Sally Pearson
By Jessica Halloran
The Sunday Telegraph
May 08, 2011
SALLY Pearson makes no apologies as she confronts the hurdles in her life. Jessica Halloran profiles a true Aussie warrior.
Sally Pearson was never the one at kindergarten crying for mum. She could catch two buses by herself and not whimper.
Her legs could hit every hurdle and she would still win without a tear.
That resilience still carries her through. Her trademark is her toughness. Pearson constantly expects the best from herself, she sprints until she throws up, rips up the track until she’s in tears.
“Oh, you are such a hard arse Sally,” they tell her.
Pearson doesn’t apologise for it.
“It is all I know,” she says. “If I come across pretty hard . . . well, you have to be pretty hard in this sport, you have to be ready to go anytime.”
Pearson knows this toughness has a lot to do with the way she grew up. She learnt hard work by watching her single mum, Ann, who once worked two jobs to help fund her daughter’s track dreams.
Nothing came easily, it was just the way life was. “Some people are used to having things done for them by her parents, I am not,” Pearson says. “I can do it myself.”
Growing up, it was just her and mum living on the Gold Coast. She loved her childhood and is grateful for the way she was raised.
Her dad has never really been part of her life. While some children may have wondered why wasn’t their father around, Pearson never worried about it – and doesn’t now.
“I know who my dad is, I’ve met him a few times, but I don’t even call him dad,” Pearson says. “I know it sounds horrible, but I don’t even see him as part of my family, to be honest. If you want the truth, it doesn’t bother me because I don’t know any different.
“I just know that me and my mum, that was my family.”
People always ask her, “Don’t you think you should talk to him and get a relationship with him?”
Pearson doesn’t see the need, she loves her life as it is.
“I want to surround myself with positive things, why do I have to put myself in an awkward position when I don’t have to,” Pearson says. “I already do that when I do athletics. That’s stressful enough for me as it is, why do I have to add more stress to my life when I don’t want it. Maybe one day . . . I can’t say that I won’t ever speak to him again.”
Pearson speaks with refreshing honesty. She is clearly not afraid to say what she wants or what she thinks, and that applies to her professional life, too.
The Olympic 100m hurdles silver medallist wants even more and isn’t afraid to say so.
“I really want a gold medal,” Pearson says. “I don’t just want to make a final, I want a gold medal.”
Pearson, 24, is a determined competitor. She has a hunger that coaches would love to bottle.
But Pearson almost didn’t run one of the most important races of her life. That race was at the Queensland little athletics championships in 1999.
On that sunny day in Townsville, Pearson was lost in a daydream, strolling along to watch the kids doing long jump. She gazed out across the athletics track and saw the girls lining up for the hurdles.
“It this the under-13 hurdles?” She asked a nearby official. “Yes,” came the reply. “Crap,” she yelled.
She bolted to the other side of the oval to pick up her spikes and made it to the start line. “I’m here, I’m here,” she said to the race marshal.
Pearson had already been replaced by one of the reserves. She simply shouted, “I’m in”. The race officials literally pushed the reserve hurdler off the start-line and Sally took her place. The gun went and she won the under-13 state title in a Queensland record.
“They almost disqualified me because I was so late to the event, but because I got the record they didn’t disqualify me,” she recalls.
She also smacked her legs on every hurdle, knocking nearly every one over. Sharon Hannan was watching that day.
“I didn’t know who she was,” Pearson says. She soon would as Hannan became her coach and they formed a partnership that remains strong a decade later.
The cool, composed Hannan, who taught herself the business of coaching from books, has guided Pearson to gold at the world youth championships, the Commonwealth Games last year and silver at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Pearson says their partnership works because they have a clear idea of their roles.
“We are professional,” Pearson says. “We don’t step over the boundaries – we are athlete and coach. We are not family. We are not friends in a way, I guess. That’s how you should keep it and don’t get personal about things.
“If you get personal, then you are more sensitive to criticism, the coach needs to criticise you, what they need to fix, you can’t take it to heart. That’s what we’ve done well. She’s got her family. I’ve got my family. I think we’ve done that well.
“We don’t need anything else in between. That’s what I pay her for; she is my coach. She’s a great coach. She’s done wonders for me and she’ll be doing wonders for me in another four to eight years.”
The Bartercard offices on the Gold Coast is where you will find Pearson working. She will be answering phones and trying to keep her cool.
Despite her success in athletics, she works partly because she has to and partly to stave off boredom.
“It’d be the four hours a day I would be at home watching TV. I may as well get some skills out of those four hours,” she says.
Pearson started working in the customer care department, where her mum is the supervisor, last year. She took it up after suffering a back injury leading into the 2009 world championships. She’d become depressed and struggled to find motivation to train.
“I hated athletics, I had a really hard time,” she says.
While the others sit at their desks, Pearson stands, with her computer and keyboard also elevated. “They thought I was a bit strange at the start, but I’m still an athlete, I’ve got to keep my body in shape.”
For a feisty character, who admittedly doesn’t have a lot of patience for incompetence, this job can be a battle.
“It’s a bit draining,” Pearson says.
“It’s really hard because I’ve never had a job like that before in my whole life. It’s taken me a while to learn how to speak to customers in a friendly and calm manner.” She then laughs at herself.
“You know, you get some people and you are just like; ‘Shut up, I’m trying to do my best here, OK’.”
Pearson rolls her eyes and sighs. “I don’t like it when people ring you up and they are angry already.
“It’s OK. I like it, it’s completely different to what I have to do on a daily basis in my athletics and obviously my athletics comes first.
“Hurdling, sprinting, athletics in general, is always in the back of your mind.”
But from a very young age Pearson loved hard work. It became apparent when she took up gymnastics as a four-year-old.
By the time she was six, she was training 30 hours a week.
“Intense,” she says. “The coaches were horrible . . . they were so strict and nasty, but I loved it.”
While she was a fighter on the track, at primary school Pearson was shy, quiet and meek. It was when she hit high school that she decided she would no longer be frightened to talk.
“I was sick of being scared around people,” she says. “One day I said, ‘stuff it. I am going to have fun and talk more’. I started to be more open.”
But still it was difficult. At times, because of her athletic prowess, Pearson felt alone. She found it difficult to fit in.
“Being at school, being who I am, being an athlete, it was hard to find people like me,” Pearson says. “There’s not many athletes that can be at my level. That was kind of hard finding people who love something so much they want to keep on doing it. Some of the others were going out drinking, partying.
I just didn’t do that. I couldn’t relate to anyone. I couldn’t talk to them.”
She laughs now. “Why did I even bother trying to be cool at school?”
Her perseverance with her sport saw her selected for the world youth championships, which she won. She competed at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games as a teenager. A defining moment came at the world championships in 2007.
It’s when Pearson’s competitive attitude caught the public’s attention.
The Australian women’s 4x100m relay team had failed to make the final. While her teammates told the TV cameras that their eighth-place finish in their heat was a “good effort”, a fuming Pearson said: “No, it’s just not
She stormed off after the interview and was still furious later.
Reflecting on the time, she says: “You train so bloody hard for that and for something to stuff up, why be happy with that? People forget you are allowed to be disappointed. What’s so wrong with being disappointed, if you’ve worked so bloody hard for something?”
Hannan spoke about Pearson’s determination a few years ago.
“She wants it,” Hannan said. “There’s absolutely no denying it. She’s never faltered, ever.”
Pearson maintains that culturally some Australians need to toughen up and aim beyond just getting the Olympic team tracksuit.
She points at the discus-thrower Benn Harradine, who trains in Europe. He recently wrote on his blog that for some Australians “making the Olympics is their gold medal”.
“He wrote in Europe kids want to be gold medallists, over in Australia kids want to be on the team,” Pearson says. “It’s a huge difference. It’s like we are holding ourselves back from our potential. That really stood out to me. He’s so right. I really want a gold medal, I don’t just want to make a final.”
Does she think there is a culture shift within Australian athletics to demand more than just the tracksuit?
“I hope so,” she says. “We’ve got me, Steve Hooker, Mitchell Watt, Fabrice Lapeierre, Dani Samuels, Ryan Gregson, when he gets back from injury. He ran 3:31 in Monaco last year in the 1500m, that’s amazing.
“Don’t think you are anything less. I know these people are the best in the world, so be like them, do what they do. If you can’t beat them, join them. I’ve always been like that, but I’ve always been afraid to let it out because everyone else wasn’t like that.”
A few weeks ago, Pearson nearly cried after she demolished the competition and won three titles at the national championships – the 100m, the 200m and 100m hurdles.
She became the first athlete since Pam Ryan in 1968 to win three titles at the one championships. An amazing feat considering the workload she’s taken on before hitting the European circuit in a world championship year.
“It’s such a relief for it to be over and my body is still in one piece,” she says. “I have done 23 races since January and it’s been really tough going but also good that I’ve been able to run, train, compete and travel all season.”
For all her fight and hard work on the track, Pearson likes to live a very low-key life at home on with her husband Kieran.
“I just like to hang out with Kieran and my dog Oscar and watch TV,” she says. “It is so nice.”
She adores the time she gets to spend with him and says he is a huge support.
What binds the pair together is a similar drive for their respective careers. For Sally, it is winning gold medals; for Kieran, it’s making his plumbing business boom.
“We are so completely different, but very similar,” Pearson says.
“I mean we are different in fitness-wise, sports-wise – he’s not very energetic.
“At the same time we are very motivated to do what we do. He’s a plumber, he’s really quite intelligent. When he has a passion for something he will just go at it like I do.”
Sometimes Kieran will ask Sally about competition and training.
“But if I don’t elaborate on it, he knows not to keep asking,” Pearson says.