Getting home from Italy and realising I wasn’t going to the World Championships [later that summer] I cried probably every morning for a week or two. I also had a torn calf that was about 14cm long which actually caused me to get the wrist injury so I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t cut my food properly and the little things really got to me. To be honest when I first did my wrist, I retired in my head. I didn’t want to come back to the sport and hated everything about the world. I was just sick of getting injured.
#London2017 – Sally Pearson and Why She Decided To Go It Alone
Sally Pearson is one of the best 100m hurdlers the world has ever seen. She has multiple World, Olympic and Commonwealth titles to her name and has run some of the fastest times in history. Aged 30, she is still competing alongside the best in the World and aims to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games where she will be 33.
However, Sally’s athletic journey has not been an easy one. Riddled with injuries, incidents and coaching changes along the way, she has coached herself back to peak form for this years IAAF World Championships in London.
Below, we share Sally’s story from her early success as a teenager, working alongside her coach Sharon Hannon to how she overcame adversity to be one of the only self-coached elite athletes in the World.
Born in Paddington, Sydney, on 19 September 1986, she moved to Birdsville, Queensland when she was eight years old. It was there, while she was still in primary school, that her athletic talents were noticed by Sharon Hannan.
Pearson rose to prominence in 2001, when at the age of only 14, she won the Australian Youth 100 m and 90 m hurdles titles. After injury setbacks during 2002 she made her international debut at the 2003 World Youth Championshipsin Sherbrooke, Canada and won gold in the 100 m hurdles. The following month, still only 16 years old, she represented Australia at open level at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, France as part of the 4 × 100 m relay team. In 2004, she won a bronze in the 100 m at the World Junior Championships, and just missed out on a medal in the 100 m hurdles.
Sally and Sharon continued their successful partnership throughout her junior and senior career as Sally became won Silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics followed by Gold at the 2011 World Championships, Gold at the 2012 London Olympics and Silver at the 2013 World Championships.
Sharon took part in her first athletics coaching course in 1983 after spending some time at her local athletic club volunteering to measure the discus throws. Thanks to her daughters interest in the sport, Sharon soon became hooked and volunteered at the ‘Little Athletics’ Summer camp in the same year. It was here that Sharon learnt the foundations of coaching, and as she had never been an athlete herself, grew her passion and experience.
In 1991 she started coaching officially at the Marlin Coast Athletics Club and moved to the Gold Coast later that year, taking on a coaching role after a fellow female coach retired. She continued building her coaching passion and knowledge with heptathletes, learning how to manage their schedules and the various competitive structures involved in athletics when in 1999 a 12 year old Sally Pearson showed up at the club and started training with Sharon.
I had to stay 10 steps in front of where she was going, as I had to learn and be prepared for her every improvement. She qualified for the IAAF World Youth Championships in 2002, and I’d never even heard of it. Part of the Athletics Australia selection criteria was that you had to compete in U18, and Sally had been competing in U16 at nationals, although was faster than any of the U18s. She also medalled in long jump, in high jump, the 200m and the 4x100m relay. When she first qualified, they wouldn’t select her, which I think was a good thing in the long run because she was only 14 turning 15 later that year. I don’t think it harmed her career. But I had to become more aware of what was going on around me as well.
Splitting From Her Coach
In 2013, Sally announced her shock split with her long time coach Sharon and has since revealed that ‘catfights’ and a lack of trust were behind the decision. She said splitting with Sharon was the “only way” she could find fresh motivation to continue her athletics career:
The time is right for us to go our separate ways, Sharon has made me into a Champion but I feel that to move to another level I need to freshen up my approach to training, develop fresh ideas and incorporate new challenges into the way I do business. My competitors are always striving to make themselves better and I must do the same. Sharon is an amazing coach and I will continue to attribute my success to her.
I needed something different, I needed something refreshing and that was what I was going to be able to get (with a change of coach).
I know that Sharon’s programs and training have got me to where I am today and obviously I appreciate everything but you also need to be happy with what you’re doing, you need to find something that’s going to keep you going in the sport that you love and that’s what I needed to do.
As elite athletes go, I’m not the only one in the world who’s struggled with their coaching relationship but you’ve got two people who are so passionate about what they’re doing and they want the best out of themselves … so when you put those two sort of personalities together, you can have some catfights. But we got through those and we got the results we were after.
In the same statement, Sharon put aside her disappointment to wish Pearson well:
Yes I am disappointed, but Sally and I discussed the options and she believes this is best for her. We had some amazing performances. We have conquered the world and I wish her every success for the future and hope that she continues to conquer the world.
Difficult Seasons, Injuries and New Coaches
Since her split with Shannon in 2013, Sally had mixed success. In 2014, she stormed to Commonwealth Gold in Glasgow wining the 100m Hurdle title for the first time. She had a turbulent week in the lead up as the Australian team Head Coach Eric Hollingsworth had been suspended after accusing her of setting a bad example for not being at the team camp. This followed a public falling out at that years indoor World Championship as Hollingsworth had criticised Sally’s defeat in the 60m hurdle final.
Whilst winning the Gold medal in Glasgow was a huge achievement for Sally, the rest of the season was injury riddled and the next season went from bad to worse.
Then, in 2015, Sally suffered a horrific hurdles accident which left her doubting a return to the track. It was at the Rome Diamond League meeting on June 4 that she, sustained a sickening injury when she clattered a hurdle and took the entire force of the fall on her left hand to leave her screaming in agony.
The extent of her injuries would later be diagnosed as 12 broken bones and a dislocation, but the severity is better conveyed by the words of one of the Italian doctors that treated her in hospital, who simply said her wrist had “exploded”.
So distressed was she in the immediate aftermath that Pearson at first feared her hand would have to be amputated. Although she now dismisses such concerns as the “irrational” thinking of someone confronted by the sight of her hand and arm pointing in contrasting directions, the star of Australian athletics admits the injury left her in a dark place.
Announcing her Self-Coach Status
Since splitting with her long-term coach Sharon Hannan in 2013, Pearson has had two short-term stints with coaches Antony Drinkwater-Newman and Ash Mahoney, but she announced in late August 2016 that she intended to take control of her own career. She had contemplated being self-coached for a while, but doubted her ability to not only return to the sport, but also the commitment needed to coach as well as train and compete.
Sally missed out on defending her Olympic title at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games after suffering a hamstring tear during training – only a month after returning to competition after that horrific wrist injury. She was contemplating retirement from the sport until being inspired by an in-flight movie:
“I had suffered the hamstring tear and I was struggling to decide if I wanted to stay in the sport when I took a flight from Sydney back home to Gold Coast and I watched the story of Lydia Lassila, the 2010 Olympic aerial skiing gold medallist. I was inspired by that film and all the injuries and surgeries she had been through and I thought, I only have a hamstring injury for goodness sake. I know I can get back from that. Watching that video, I got off the plane and said; I’m staying in athletics, I’m going to start training and coach myself.”
Challenges of being Self-Coached
We all know the importance of a great coach-athlete relationship and the support a coach can offer an athlete. Whether it be performance feedback, reassurance, or simply having that familiar face by the track, athletes rely on their coaches for all kinds of support. For the first time, Sally did not have that coach to lean on and had to learn to rely only on herself:
“I recall during the recent indoor season running 8.03 in my 60m hurdles heat in Berlin. I was very disappointed with the performance because I’d just come back from Karlsruhe having run both 7.91 in the heat and final. I had no coach to turn to but myself, so I had to take a deep breath, say it was a little hiccup and not to worry about it. I just needed to focus on my start and getting out quickly over the first few hurdles. I ran 7.91 for third in the final and that is the moment when I learned I needed to reassure yourself, not to freak out and just fine tune elements of my race.”
London 2017 World Championships
Sally is now back to hurdling at her very best. She currently stands as second fastest in the World this season, 0.2 seconds behind the American Kendra Harrison who shocked the World at last years London Diamond League in June by setting a new World Record (12.21) after missing out on team selection at the USA Olympic Trials.
Sally goes into the World Championships with a seasons best of 12.48 set once again on the London track at this years London Diamond League. She has surprised herself with her form this season and is confident in her body’s ability to hold up as she has spent the last few weeks since the London Diamond League honing her speed.
Sally will be in action on Friday 11th August, with the finals on Saturday 12th August 2017.
From all the team at the FCN, we wish Sally all the best for the Games!