Sally Pearson opens up on her journey of self-discovery

The two-time 100m hurdles world champion reveals why she didn't come out of retirement and how she's working with the future stars of Australian athletics. 

By Ashlee Tulloch
Picture by 2018 Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games

Sally Pearson never thought that life away from the track would be so different.

Since retiring in August 2019 the 2012 Olympic champion in the 100m hurdles has been on a journey of self-discovery.

Becoming a mother has been an instrumental part of that process. In July she will celebrate the first birthday of her daughter Ruby.

"I’m learning how to be a normal person and doing basically whatever I need to do during the day rather than being so tied to a routine," the Australian says to Olympic Channel. "And I never thought that I would be someone who doesn't mind not having a routine."

The 34-year-old who briefly considered a comeback for Tokyo 2020, is also keen on dispelling misconceptions about Olympians having superpowers.

"I remember when I was growing up and you watch the Olympics, you just don't think that they are real people. It's just like you're watching a movie and these are the characters who are playing these athletes and they're invincible and they're superhuman."

Enter her new role as mentor of emerging talent and elite athletes for Athletics Australia. It's a task that ticks all the boxes for Pearson.

"I just advise them from my own experience and I guess, just let them vent if they want to vent or let them ask me questions about what they need to learn or get advice from me in certain situations that they're struggling with. Just be there for them, be the peer support for them.”

"I’m just a mentor role for athletes. I'm not their coach in any way.

From athlete to athlete

Drawing on her past experiences as a pro athlete, the two-time world champion can relate to the pressure young athletes are putting on themselves.

Speaking about her London 2012 mindset, Pearson says, “It was a very intense time for me because I was so focused on one goal and that was winning and anything other than gold was a failure to me. So, it was certainly a lot of pressure that I put on myself.”

She says one of the common issues athletes discuss with her is around perception and opinion.

"There's certainly a general worry about being judged, I suppose, of performances.

"There's a lot of athletes who feel, 'oh that athlete is competing really well. Where am I at? And what if I compete against them? Am I going to be judged by everybody else? They're going to be writing stories about me."

Media plays a part too in her eyes.

"They have a fear of judgment from the general public, from the media outlets who write about them. And then, (they think) 'if I don't do so well, no media outlets are going to write about me. So that means no one cares'. And that's certainly a big issue going around.

The impact of social media has had on sport has also been well documented.

While it's recognised as an essential tool for connecting with fans and raising an an athletes profile, there are side effects which worry Pearson.

"Some of the athletes say, 'this person is getting all these sponsorships because they have these many followers on Instagram and I don't have as many followers as them. So I'm not going to get these sponsorships that are going to help me to be able to perform at my best.' The list goes on.

"It's really troubling to me. As much as social media is a fantastic tool to use, it can also be quite distracting and detrimental to some athletes." - Sally Pearson

"Either, their mental state and then also distracting to their performances in competition because they're worried that 'another athlete going to get so much more attention if they beat me in this competition because they have ten thousand more followers than me on Instagram."

The Beijing 2008 silver medallist knows exactly what that are going through which is why she was appointed technical athlete consultant for Athletics Australia in October 2020.

"I'm really enjoying that and I feel like that's a role that's really suited to me with where I want it to go, with basically my messages that I send out to the world over social media and the sort of person that I want to be for the general public and obviously for my daughter when she grows up as well.”

Pearson's thoughts about a comeback

After 16 years at the top of her game, Pearson has shifted her focus from her performance, to the performance of others.

But the Australian did admit that she contemplated an Olympic return when the Tokyo 2020 Games were delayed 12 months.

"I certainly was thinking about it, and was like, oh, maybe I could do this. Maybe it's something that I could think about doing.

"I started training, but I've certainly felt the body saying you're not going to be an elite athlete anymore. You can't cope with that sort of strain and that force that you put us through anymore.

"My tendons are old and haggard now, so they've certainly had enough."

Pearson also reveals that navigating motherhood has been an adjustment as she shifted the focus from herself to the needs of her daughter.

“I'm not as fit or as fit looking as I used to be and so that does play a big part in body awareness and self-consciousness.

"You look at yourself in pictures and you're like, oh my goodness, I look horrible, but you don’t, you're just not used to seeing yourself as unfit looking, then what you're used to". - Sally Pearson.

"It's just a matter of being kinder to yourself and allowing yourself to go through this, because being a mother is the best thing that I've ever done, and I love every moment with her.

"You have to not be too hard on yourself and that's the part that I am struggling with because you don’t fit into the clothes like you used to.”

Since becoming a mother, Pearson has learned invaluable lessons about herself.

"I'm quite a calm, level-headed person when I'm just being a person rather than an athlete and I think I'm enjoying the freedom of pretty much doing whatever I like according to whatever Ruby wants to do.

"I thought I was always going to be a very structured, routine-oriented person and I don't think I really need that."

Olympians are human too

The two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist likes to show that successful athletes are human and relatable.

"You just never think that they feel exactly what we feel. But we all feel the same. We all think the same way. It's just at different levels.

"It's nice when you start talking to them (other Olympians) and you start realising how much you have in common with people that you thought were superhuman."

It's a good reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, with athletes no exception.

"I don't think there's many people who are not coping quite well, not as many as we think there are anyway.

"I think it's (COVID-19) has allowed us to speak up a lot more about how we've struggled and how we have coped in the last 12 months, which is really good, because it means that conversations of either mental strength or mental weakness is being talked about a lot more, so we have more support for those people who really need it.

"It's not such a taboo thing to talk about. It's something that needs to be addressed and needs to be addressed a lot more world widely, and it certainly seems to be picking up, which I think saves a lot of athletes or saves a lot of people in the world as well, because they they feel more comfortable now to reach out and ask for help."

Tokyo Olympics, a symbol of hope

As someone who's been to two Games, the significance of the Tokyo Olympic Games is not lost on her.

"I think it gives some hope for athletes, for the world," Pearson tells Olympic Channel.

"It's going to be the biggest sporting event that's happened with this pandemic and I think it's going to be the biggest party for people that are going through such a crap time at the moment.

"It's something that they can focus on other than the bloody covid pandemic, because I'm so sick of hearing that word every single day, all day, every day."

Pearson herself cannot wait for the Games to get underway.

"I just want to hear about the Olympics and I want to hear something happy. And I want to see people achieving great things.

"I think it's going to give some people some hope that, yes, we can get this done and yes, we can beat it and we can all come together and we can compete and we can enjoy ourselves and we can have a great time and watch some entertaining sport."

While she won't be racing in Tokyo, her eyes still remain firmly on the track.

Norway's double world champion in 400m hurdles Karsten Warholm is one who has caught her eye.

The 25-year-old is touted as a gold medal favourite in his Olympics debut.

"I remember the first time I saw him at a Diamond Lake in Oslo and I was watching on TV and he just went crazy, like he was slapping his face, he was jumping up and down and I’m like, 'who is this guy? He's going to be worn out by the time he even leaves the blocks. He needs to settle down just a little bit.'

"Then he got out of the blocks and he sprinted the first 200, I'm like, see he's going crazy. He's not even going to make it for the last 200m because he's way too tired now. And then all of a sudden, he goes and wins the Diamond League.

"He was a huge surprise to me and so exciting to watch. And he's such an entertainer."

Of course she's excited to see which woman will take the podium in what was her main event, the 100m hurdles.

"You have obviously the world record holder, Kendra Harrison.

"You have the mums as well. You have Nia Ali, Dawn Harper Nelson. You have Tiffany Porter (nee Ofili) coming back. There are three mums in there who are potentially going to win medals at the Olympics this year and I think that's super exciting and really inspiring to me.

"Ali has two children as well, not even just one. She has two. She's just like a super mum and she's the world champion in 2019 with a one-year-old. So, I mean, who does that? That is nuts and it's really inspiring to see."