While their names have long been familiar to athletics fans, the roads that Usain Bolt and Sally Pearson travelled on the way to their World Athlete of the Year awards in 2011 were an inspiring contrast on how to reach the top and how to stay there.
Both standouts since their early teen years - indeed, both won World Youth titles in 2003 - the pair quickly assumed lead roles in the sport, fine tuning their precocious talents to take World Athlete of the Year honours, the third time for Bolt, and the first for Pearson. Both are just 25, suggesting their best is yet to come.
[NOTE - See 'Related Content' to the right of this story under the photo, for the Athlete of the Year announcement and other awards from the 2010 World Athletics Gala.]
For Bolt, an atypical year
For Bolt, the ‘World’s Fastest Man’ and the sport’s biggest star, 2011 didn’t seem to be going quite like his ascendant 2008 and 2009 seasons, nor his 2010 follow-up. Injured early on, he didn’t embark on the main part of his season until late May when he produced a pair of 9.91 performances in a span of five days at Rome’s Golden Gala and Ostrava’s Golden Spike. While both were victories, they weren’t quite the performances that matched the heightened expectations that now typically shadow the double World record holder’s every appearance. Both races were close as well with narrow 0.02 and 0.06 margins, respectively, over compatriots Asafa Powell and Steve Mullings.
His final pre-Daegu 100m race was a little faster at 9.88, but again was a fiercely fought contest, this time just 0.02 ahead of another compatriot Nesta Carter.
Meanwhile, after a 19.86 200m opener in an Oslo downpour, a pair of 20.03 follow-ups in Paris and Stockholm didn’t signal that the playful Jamaican would arrive in Daegu as the overwhelming favourite he was prior to the 2008 Olympic Games and 2009 World Championships. But he clearly did arrive in Korea prepared, judging by the ease with which he propelled himself through the 100m rounds. But then disaster struck in the final when Bolt was guilty of a false start heard round the world.
But true to form, he didn’t despair. Six days later he bounced back to dominate the 200m final in 19.40, what was then the fourth fastest performance in history. (Two of the top three belong to him as well.) A day later came the proverbial icing on the cake when he teamed with Carter, Michael Frater and Yohan Blake to anchor a 37.04 World record in the 4x100m Relay.
Post-Daegu, there was one more item on his to-do list: end the season as the world’s fastest man. He improved to 9.85 in Zagreb on 13 September, and went considerably faster in Brussels three days later, clocking 9.76 to end the season as the fastest in the 100m.
Soon after receiving the award, Bolt said this one “meant a whole lot”, perhaps more than his previous two which capped his World record-setting sprees in 2008 and 2009. “This season was a really trying season for me, I really had to work hard and step up my game.”
Bolt also asked attendees of the World Athletics Gala to take a moment to remember Howard Aris, the President of the Jamaican federation, whose support and guidance played a key role in the athlete’s success. Aris passed away in Jamaica on Thursday.
Pearson – dominance from the start
Like Bolt, Pearson came to the fore as a World Youth champion and has spent the intervening years gradually working her way up to the pinnacle of women’s hurdling elite. The Olympic silver medallist in Beijing, Pearson improved her own Area record to 12.50 in 2009, but dogged by injury later that summer she missed the podium in Berlin by two notches. Not quite as fast in 2010, she still performed admirably on the circuit, capping her season with wins at the IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup and Commonwealth Games. Speed, we would soon learn, was on the agenda for 2011.
Pearson said that the chief difference in 2011 came from more speed endurance training to help sustain her through the end of her race. Signs of improvement came early on in the Australian domestic season when she swept the national 100m, 200m and 100m Hurdles titles, the first triple national championships victory by a woman in Australia in more than 40 years.
And the speed was apparent in her European season debut when she clocked 12.47 in Lausanne, albeit wind-aided. A further improvement of her Area record came in her next outing, where she clocked 12.48 in Birmingham. She concluded with two more victories prior to Daegu, 12.51 in Monaco and 12.58 in London (along with a 12.55 in the heats) to arrive in the Korean city as the world's most consistent hurdler. She would leave as one history's fastest.
That she was in the shape of her life was abundantly clear when she cruised to a 12.36 victory in the semis, a massive improvement that moved her all the way up to equal No. 5 all-time. Her seemingly effortless run left one lingering question: did she run too fast too soon? She answered that question less than two hours later.
With one of the most memorable performances in World Championships history, Pearson's run in the final was one of sublime rhythmic beauty, her confident rhythm, cadence and power a sight to behold. Leaving a strong strong field well back in her wake, she reached the line in 12.28, the fastest performance in more than two decades which lifted her to the No. 4 spot all-time.
Suddenly, Yordanka Donkova's 12.21 World record, set on 20 August 1988 - a few months before Pearson would blow out the candles on her second birthday cake - seemed within reach. That was never a doubt for Pearson’s long-time coach Sharon Hannan. Now she’s made a believer out of Pearson, too.
Post-Daegu, her success continued with 12.52 and 12.68 victories in Zurich and Zagreb, extending her unbeaten streak to 13. That streak came to a screeching halt after she tumbled over the seventh hurdle in Brussels. Her pride may have wounded that evening as she walked off the track with a sad wave to the crowd, yet it seemed but a quickly faded memory when she received her award on Saturday evening, surrounded by the peers she readily admits still leave her star struck and awed. That feeling is certainly mutual.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
- 2011 competitions of the male and female World Athletes of the Year (finals only + other select highlights):
9.91 1 Roma 26 May
9.91 1 Ostrava 31 May
9.88 1 Monaco 22 Jul
DQ World Championships 28 Aug
9.85 1 Zagreb 13 Sep
9.76 1 Bruxelles 16 Sep
19.86 1 Oslo 9 Jun
20.03 1 Saint-Denis 8 Jul
20.03 1 Stockholm 29 Jul
19.40 1 World Championships 3 Sep
4 x 100m Relay
37.04 World Record 1 World Championships 4 Sep
Jamaica - Nesta Carter, Michael Frater, Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt
100 m hurdles
12.85 1 Perth 31 Mar
12.83 1 Melbourne (NC) 17 Apr
12.74 1 Gold Coast 18 Jun
12.47 1 Lausanne 30 Jun
12.48 AR 1 Birmingham 10 Jul
12.51 1 Monaco 22 Jul
12.58 1 London 6 Aug
12.36 AR 1 (semis) World Championships 3 Sep
12.28 AR 1 World Championships 3 Sep
12.52 1 Zürich 8 Sep
12.68 1 Zagreb 13 Sep
DNF Bruxelles 16 Sep
Other events, highlights:
11.21 1 Sydney 19 Mar
11.20 1 Perth 31 Mar
11.38 1 Melbourne 16 Apr
11.24 2 Rieti 10 Sep
23.05 1 Brisbane 11 Feb
23.20 1 Melbourne 17 Apr