No hurdles too high for Pearson in Olympic year

Sally Pearson doesn’t bother trying to conceal her ambitions now

that she’s a world champion.

An Olympic gold medal is top of her list for 2012. A world

record in the 100-meter hurdles would be a bonus.

With the London Olympics track program still five months away,

Pearson is setting her sights high for her first trip to this

weekend’s world indoor championships, targeting a time of 7.70

seconds in the 60-meter hurdles. The world record is 7.68.

She can afford to be confident at Istanbul. She’s renowned for

being quick out of the blocks, and she’s started the year with a

bang.

Pearson won the national Olympic trials in 12.49 seconds on a

wet and miserable weekend in Melbourne, the fastest time ever for a

100 hurdles on Australian soil. No woman has run a faster hurdles

race this early in the year.

Being Australia’s best chance of a track gold medal in London

comes with enormous expectations.

”Yeah, I know I’ve got pressure, but I can deal with it. If I

was going to falter under pressure, I would have done it tonight,”

she said on Saturday. ”I’ve shown that I can do world-class times

at the start of the year and that’ll probably scare my competitors

a bit overseas.”

Starting now.

She ran the fourth-fastest time of her career on what she

thought was going to be a bad night. Pearson didn’t even need to be

competing because she’d already been nominated to the Australian

team and could have been focused on the world indoors.

The 25-year-old Pearson was halfway through her hurdles final

and starting to think her timing was terrible.

Moments later, she was bounding back up the straight,

high-fiving fans who’d ignored the rain and were hanging over a

barricade only a few yards from the outside lane to try to get a

close-up view.

Pearson set a PB in the 200 later Saturday night for her third

win of the meet – she won the 100 title into a strong headwind the

previous evening.

Eric Hollingsworth, high performance manager for Athletics

Australia, has been monitoring Pearson closely since she was 15 and

is expecting big things.

”Well, she’s a miracle girl at the moment with 12.50 like

that,” Hollingsworth told The Associated Press. ”All we can say

is, we’ve got to keep pushing. And if she’s running 12.50 now, then

you’ve got to be thinking about the world record at some

point.”

The 100 hurdles world record has stood since 1988, when

Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova ran 12.21. Pearson’s world

championship-winning time of 12.28 at Daegu last September was the

fastest time in almost 20 years. That came amid a run of 19

consecutive race wins before stumbling over a hurdle in her last

race of the year at Brussels.

Hollingsworth is conscious that Pearson, the IAAF’s 2011 Female

World Athlete of the Year, shouldn’t be peaking too early.

”Hard thing for us in Australia is always to keep a

perspective. It is still March and there’s a long way for us to get

ready in August,” he said. ”All we can say is, we’ve got to keep

pushing. One thing we don’t want is for our athletes to

settle.”

The run on Saturday night was just part of the buildup for her

to peak at the Olympics.

”Given the conditions tonight. You’ve seen this in March. To

run 12.50. She’s got to be somewhere there when we get her to full

peak and she’s done another bit of base work and the momentum

comes,” he said. ”She’s got to be not too far away.”

Pearson endeared herself to the Australian public after an

emotionally raw and candid TV interview immediately after winning

the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in a race where American

favorite Lolo Jones tripped on the penultimate hurdle and slipped

from first to seventh.

Jones’ U.S. teammate Dawn Harper won in 12.54. Pearson, then

known by her maiden name of Sally McLellan, was next.

She hopped up and down constantly for several minutes in

celebration, then admitted on Australian TV that she’d lied in

earlier interviews when she limited her expectations to just

reaching the final.

She won the hearts of Australians again in 2010 after being

denied a gold medal in the 100 meters at the Commonwealth Games in

New Delhi following a lengthy hearing triggered by England’s

protest about a false start. In a teary interview, she expressed

her disappointed but vowed to improve. She won the hurdles at the

same meet, and that set her on the path to her run to the world

title in South Korea last year.

Other Australian athletes put in Olympic qualifying performances

at the meet in Melbourne on the weekend, and other world champions

were in the fields, but there’s no doubt who the 3,000 or so

spectators who filed into a windy Lakeside Stadium wanted to

see.

Dozens of young girls were in the crowd, some pleading for

autographs and handshakes after her hurdles win. She obliged where

she could, and did media interviews in the rain to try to keep

everyone happy.

She also has a weekly diary in the mass-circulation Sydney-based

Daily Telegraph and her longtime coach, Sharon Hannon, even wrote a

column for the national newspaper The Australian on Saturday.

”She’s obviously the golden girl,” Hollingsworth said. ”But

it’s actually part of the training process with how Sharon does

things.

”She wants her athlete to do lots of speed. Lots of repeat

performances. Get used to the ups and downs, the warmup, the cool

down, because that’s what a championships is like. So she’s done

that forever.”

Hannon, who started coaching Pearson in 1999, wrote that her

star pupil was timing her run to perfection.

”We are preparing to win gold in the 100 hurdles at the London

Olympics. Will the winning time matter? No. The fastest winning

time in an Olympic 100m hurdles was 12.37 seconds in 2004 by Joanna

Hayes of the US. And the fastest winning time in a world

championships before Sally’s personal best of 12.28s in 2011 was

also a 12.37s by Gail Devers in 1999 at Seville.

”But what really matters is crossing the finish line first. It

is our intention for Sally to cross the line first in the heats on

August 6, and again in the semifinals and finals on August 7.

‘Project Gold’ is about all three races.”

Pearson herself thinks the world record will be tough to break,

”but as I’ve been saying anything’s possible, especially with the

sort of shape I’m in at the moment.”

”I think it is possible, but at the same time all I’m focussing

on is winning the gold medal.”

She’s taking the same approach to the world indoors.