SALLY Pearson secretly hid her grief about pulling out of the Commonwealth Games when she played a starring role in Wednesday night’s opening ceremony.
The face of the Gold Coast Games knew her dreams of competing were over after an Achilles injury flared 24 hours earlier during a training session.
Pearson elected to deal with her pain and sadness in silence, preferring not to take any attention away from the opening of the Games and her role as the final Queen’s baton relay runner.
The two-time Commonwealth champion admitted she’d gone through a range of emotions as she wrestled with the decision, going back and forth with the Australian team’s medical staff, before eventually conceding she wouldn’t be competing at her hometown Games.
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“I did everything I possibly could, I left no stone unturned to get out here and race for Australia in the 100m hurdles and 4x100m relay,” Pearson said.
“Everyone who is here today knows how much of a competitor I am and how much I love running for my country and my teammates and I know I have a lot of fans who are wanting to watch me race. But for me this is about my health and I want to go to Tokyo (Olympics) in 2020.
“I was absolutely gutted. There were a lot of tears flowing, there were a lot of emotions, I guess you could call it grief going through the numb phase first, then going through the crying phase.
“It’s gut wrenching, it’s heartbreaking and its very unfortunate that I can’t get out there. I went to the opening ceremony and heard the roar for Australia and not being able to feel that for myself in my individual events is very disappointing.”
Pearson, 31, has been battling Achilles issues since 2015 and described dealing with the problem as like being on a “rollercoaster”.
The injury flared again in January but she was then able to compete at the Games selection trials and world indoor championships.
She even raced in a relay in Brisbane last week but it was during a training session on Tuesday where the pain of the injury became too much to bear.
“The best way to explain the feeling is someone has got the back of your Achilles and is just squeezing it as hard as they can and you’re trying to run through that,” she said. “It just doesn’t work.”
Team doctor Paul Blackman said seeing the physical and mental pain Pearson was enduring was difficult.
“We talk about risk and reward, but there’s this line you can’t define where every athlete has to make a decision — is this the right thing to do?,” he said.
“Sally being the competitor she is, even though we made that decision (to withdraw) on the day, 24 hours later she is still thinking I can do this.”
Pearson didn’t consider retirement and is confident she can be at best for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, replicating her stunning return at the 2017 world championships where she won her second world title after two years out.
“I know deep down I can come back and be just as strong as I was last year,” she said.
“Even before the Glasgow Commonwealth Games I tore my hamstring seven weeks before and came out and won gold.
“It just proves to me, I guess, more than anything, if I still want to do it, if I still love what I do, if I still really enjoy what I do, why am I going to give that up?
“If I feel deep down that I can give so much more in this sport for the next few years then why don’t I give it a shot?
“I know that the Australian public believes in who I am as an athlete and I know that they believe I can get back and run for Australia in the next two years leading up to Tokyo and I know that they believe that I can be at my top again.
“That is what I hold onto, that is the dream I hold onto. I want to finish off this career the best way possible and I think I can still do that.”
Pearson’s withdrawal has robbed the Commonwealth Games of its biggest star and chairman Peter Beattie said he was “saddened” by the chain of events.
“Sally’s presence on the track will be missed, but we know she will be supporting the Australian team from the stands,” Beattie said.
Pearson will continue her role as Australian team captain over the next two weeks, happily becoming a “water girl” for her teammates.
“I said that to them all, if you need anything I’m here for you as I’ve got lot of time on my hands now.”
Games legend Robert de Castella says the Australian team would not be thrown off stride by the withdrawal from Pearson.
“Although it’s an Australian team which everyone is proud to be part of, they are individual athletes and all they will be focused on is doing the best they can,’’ said de Castella, who backed Pearson to line-up at next year’s world championships with “renewed passion to succeed”.
WARNING SIGNS WE SHOULD HAVE SEEN
IT was the email which set off warning sirens.
Last Wednesday on the morning of the final lead-up event for the Commonwealth Games, Sally Pearson’s manager released a strange statement about the status of the hurdles champion.
It revealed Pearson wouldn’t be racing in the 100m hurdles at the Brisbane meet but instead only running a leg of the 4x100m relay.
And in an extraordinary revelation given Pearson’s love of secrecy throughout her career, Robert Joske declared her preparation was being “compromised by a recurrent Achilles issue”.
It was almost like he was preparing everyone for exactly what happened seven days later.
Pearson’s mantra throughout her career has always been never give an opponent anything. Don’t let them know you’re vulnerable in any way.
The year after Pearson’s breakthrough silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, she went to the world championships in Berlin as favourite.
In the lead-up she hurt her back but told no-one with the injury only being revealed when she disappointed in the final, finishing fifth.
She copped some criticism, but the girl from the Gold Coast was adamant the right thing was always to keep your cards close to your chest.
In the lead-up to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games Pearson tore her hamstring seven weeks out but kept it in-house.
And when she won the gold medal again, it further fuelled her instinct that secrecy was always the best way.
The whispers about this preparation had started well before Joske’s email.
Pearson has always enjoyed racing, that’s how she best prepares for major championships and it’s very much the same philosophy Cathy Freeman had during her celebrated career.
The more they raced, the better they felt mentally and physically going into the big one.
Pearson hadn’t raced a lot this year and when she did it was obvious there was something not quite right.
She couldn’t hide her frustration in January when she recorded what she deemed disappointing times in Perth and Canberra.
Her first appearance on the Carrara Stadium track at the selection trials in February also didn’t go according to plan with her 16th national title won in 12.73sec.
The self-coached Pearson wanted to be running around 12.5sec and didn’t mince her words afterwards: “It’s a bit disappointing. It has been a tough few weeks training so I’m really proud I got out here today and put on somewhat of a good show.”
A trip to the world indoor championships in Birmingham followed but she failed to make it out of the semi-finals, which again raised eyebrows.
When she got back to Australia the Achilles issue, which she’d struggled with since 2015, had got worse.
With the countdown clock to the Gold Coast down to under a month, the seeds of doubt in the Pearson camp grew to the point where Joske was moved to break protocol and release the now infamous email.
On Tuesday Pearson was unable to complete a simple hurdles drill, one she’d done thousands of times before. She stood at the end of the track and shook her head.
That doubt which had been bubbling along for months now flooded her senses.
She was cooked. The dream was over.
AUSSIE TEAM ROBBED OF ATHLETICS BACKBONE
SHE has been the track and field team’s security blanket for the best part of a decade.
Sally Pearson was the banker.
If she was fit that generally meant medals were being won and in a team struggling for stars her success helped cover the deficiencies elsewhere.
The hurdles champion delivering didn’t just make the Australian public happy but it also made the Sports Commission and those with the purse strings more positive about athletics.
Pearson’s record is extraordinary. Since her shock Olympic silver medal at Beijing in 2008 she’s won Olympic gold, two world titles and two Commonwealth crowns.
Walker Jared Tallent has been the only other consistent contributor on the medals front over that time.
He’s not competing at the Gold Coast because of injury which adds another layer to Pearson’s withdrawal yesterday.
So who steps up?
The track and field team, which numbers 107, is the second largest in Commonwealth Games history.
It’s predominantly young team with only a handful of gold medal contenders now that their co-captain is gone.
The problem for team management is they were desperate for a spike after what was a disastrous Glasgow campaign where the head coach was sent home in disgrace after a public blow-up with Pearson.
In the end they won just nine medals in total — six gold and three bronze — which was the worst since 1934.
With no Pearson, where do six gold medals come on the Gold Coast?
Dani Stevens in the discus is a lock to defend her crown with the 2009 world champion enjoying a career resurrection which was capped off by the silver medal at last year’s world championships in London.
Javelin thrower Kathryn Mitchell has broken the Australian record in the lead-up and should improve on her fourth place in Glasgow.
A lack of depth in the walks should see us clean up in both the men and women with Dane Bird-Smith, the bronze medallist from Rio Olympics, to start favourite in the men’s 20km event.
We should find success in the marathon also with defending men’s champion Michael Shelley racing on his home turf while Lisa Weightman and Jess Trengove will be hard to beat in the women’s.
The rising star who could take the next step and capture the attention of the nation is pole vaulter Kurtis Marschall.
His idol Steve Hooker announced himself at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and then two years later he was an Olympic champion.
Marschall, 20, showed he has what it takes to mix with the world’s best when he finished seventh in the world championships final last year.
Queensland schoolgirl sprinter Riley Day has star written all over her, but a miracle medal might be a bridge too far given the 200m is stacked with talent including Jamaica’s dual Olympic champion Elaine Thompson.
Two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist Jane Flemming is confident the Australian team won’t fall apart without Pearson.
“The management of this team has enough experience to make sure that won’t happen,” she said.
“It’s the benefits of having Craig (Hilliard) as head coach, who has coached at many Olympics and world titles and has experience which will play out in these really important times.
“He will be saying to them to concentrate on what they’re doing in their event and he’ll be telling them, `Sally will be there to cheer you on, but you don’t need to worry about her’.”