Sally Pearson has starred as one of the world’s premier sprint hurdlers over the past decade, winning world and Olympic titles in her speciality event. Here the Australian recalls her memories of competing at the 2003 World U18 Championships in Sherbrooke – then the IAAF World Youth Championships – the competition where she first made her mark internationally as a wide-eyed 16-year-old.
Sally Pearson (then McLellan) had shown her star potential for some time before her appearance at the 2003 IAAF World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada.
Aged 14, she won the Australian U20 100m in a swift 11.91 only for a stress fracture of the foot later that year to derail her development. Working patiently on strengthening her feet and ankles was later to pay dividends. By 2003 the Australian was flying.
That year Pearson set PBs for the 100m (11.57), 200m (24.00) and 100m hurdles (13.57) prior to the World Youth Championships. Her major dilemma was which two events to target.
“Each meeting I always wanted to do lots of events and I remember my coach at the time saying I had to choose two events between hurdles, 100m and 200m and that the 200m and hurdles were my best option.”
She heeded the advice and even with a third event – the medley relay – on the agenda, the overwhelming emotion she felt when leaving the airport for Canada was excitement.
“I remember receiving my first Australian uniform and taking photos of it because it had Australia written on the back,” she recalls. “Getting on the big plane to go to San Francisco (en route) to Sherbrooke was such a big deal.”
Intending to race across three events spanning three days of the competition schedule presented its logistical challenges for the 16-year-old Queenslander. However, the versatile athlete admits she was lucky to have Penny Gillies on the Australian coaching team to iron out any potential pitfalls.
“Penny wrote down an hour-by-hour programme of what I needed to do in each competition,” explains Pearson. “She told me what time I should walk on the track, what time I needed to start my warm up, what time I needed a drink. She even advised me where I could to take a ramp instead because walking upstairs is more fatiguing. It was fantastic to have her by my side guiding me through the competition. It took the pressure off organising myself.”
Her first day of competition on 11 July saw Pearson successfully advance through the heats of the 200m and opening round and semi-finals of the 100m hurdles. She secured victory in all three races, setting PBs in the 200m (23.88) and 100m hurdles (13.14) to enjoy an excellent first day of action. But with four races scheduled the following day, there was no time to relax.
In her second day of competition, Pearson opened her account in the 200m semi-finals by placing second behind USA's Cleo Tyson in a time of 24.10 to advance to the final later that day but there was to be frustration in the medley relay as the Australian quartet was disqualified for taking the baton outside of the exchange zone.
“I ran the 200m leg and I seemed to be running for a long time,” she explains. “I later found out the girl I’d handed the baton to was out of the exchange zone which was disappointing, because I’d worked bloody hard.”
Still, Pearson had no time to sulk as later that day she competed in her sixth race in two days with her final of the 100m hurdles. As the fastest qualifier, she was the undoubted favourite, but there were no guarantees.
“I just remember being on the start line feeling so tired,” she recalls. “Coming off the last hurdles I could see LaToya Greaves of Jamaica right in my eye line and I just had the power to get me to the finish line first.”
Pearson had struck gold by a victory margin of 0.07 in 13.42. “It was a great feeling to say I was world champion.”
She then rushed to the second call room in time for the 200m final which took place just 40 minutes later – for what was her seventh race in two days – without a care in the world.
“I had this smile on my face and I think my 200m rivals were wondering what I was so happy about!”
Pearson placed fifth in the final in 24.01 behind Jamaica’s Anneisha McLaughlin, her gruelling workload for the week complete.
Pearson has, of course, gone on to enjoy a stellar career, winning the 2011 world 100m hurdles title and the 2012 Olympic crown. Yet competing and excelling at those 2003 championships in Sherbrooke proved a pivotal chapter in her glittering career.
“Competing in Sherbrooke gave me the confidence to believe that I could be competitive and the confidence that one day I could go to the Olympics,” she explains. “It taught me to dream big.”
As for the competitors in July’s IAAF World U18 Championships, she would encourage them to embrace every second of the experience just as she did at the same competition 14 years ago.
“I would say, take the opportunity to learn something,” says Pearson. “You are only that young, innocent, that excitable once. The World U18 Championships are an amazing journey and you will keep those memories stored forever.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF