Sally Pearson is far from the first athlete to find peace and even a kind of privacy out on the stage, in front of millions. But surely no-one can have made the fiendish task of tearing up a 100m course of tightly-spaced hurdles at full pace look as natural as breathing.
The circumstances around Pearson’s Glasgow run were unique. Every big race has its own flavour, and this one will taste sweet indeed. The Eric Hollingsworth affair complicated a situation already clouded by Pearson’s not having won a major event since the London Olympics. Then there was the night itself. Hampden Park once held 149,000 for a football match, and that many and more will claim to have come to see Usain Bolt. The stadium was standing-room only, noticeably in the athletes’ section. The games village must have been a barren place. Among the crowd, there were no hard feelings about Bolt’s reported Glasgow kiss-off.
Pearson’s hurdles final took place 27 minutes after Bolt’s relay. By 10.05pm, when she was out in her tracksuit, sizing up her start, a post-coital sigh had settled over Hampden Park. After great suspense and excitement, Bolt had come and gone. As the hurdlers got ready, there was a great celebration for Scot Lynsey Sharp’s silver medal in the women’s 800m. Pearson paused her warm-up to observe the raising of the Kenyan flag for gold-medallist Eunice Jepkoech Sum.
Pearson cut her usual determined figure, muttering key words to herself, but revealed afterwards that the tension of recent events was getting to her. "I felt like I was going to be sick", she said. "I had to drink some Powerade to spark me up, because I felt awful."
As the runners were introduced, Pearson stood in a sharp contrast to her fellow Australians. Michelle Jenneke performed her standard jiggly jig and waved at friends in the crowd, while Sharon McCann, with pierced lip and Irn Bru-coloured hair, fidgeted and crossed herself. Pearson went through her usual no-s—t pre-race routine.
The starter’s gun at Hampden Park sounds like a door being slammed in another room, and surely that was Pearson’s moment of freedom. Slam the door on everything. No more soap operas now, just hurdling.
At this race, which makes Australia palpitate – oh, for the days when all Cathy Freeman had to do was run, not negotiate ten trip-wires – Pearson is such a master craftsman that once you stop holding your breath, you end up gasping at her expertise. Ten times, her left leg flicked out like a jack-knife. You could have set up a matchbox on each hurdle, and her left heel could have knocked each one off without disturbing the flint. She led her main rival, England’s Tiffany Porter, from the first hurdle, By the fourth, she had a break of two metres. Her face was a study of concentration. Going over the sixth hurdle, she licked her lips. Porter began to strain in pursuit, and mistimed the tenth. By then Pearson’s teeth were showing, then the smile bursting at the line and the cry: ‘Yes! Yes!’ So great was the relief, she thought she was actually running faster after the line than before.
Later, both Porter and the bronze medallist, Canada’s Angela Whyte, were critical of their performances. ‘I executed badly,’ Porter said. But poor execution came from pressure exerted by the Australian. No runner exists in a vacuum.
Having crossed the line, Pearson made for two supporters, known as Mossy and Robbo. One was wearing a kilt and the other was mugging Pearson with an inflatable kangaroo. She grabbed a flag and set off on her victory lap. Hampden Park was emptying, the last event having been run, but there were still plenty of fans waiting for her. Significantly, by the time she came around to the finish line, the athletes’ area was still heaving with Pearson’s Australian teammates. If any show of solidarity was needed, this was it: these Australian athletes, given a chance to vote between captain and coach, were giving Pearson a full endorsement. These things are important. If she was considered a prima donna among that group, few would have waited for her.
"I’m very supportive of the Australian team and everyone knows that," she said. "I love my team and the people that are in it. We’re just like a family."
The stadium rang out with Pearson’s delighted squeals as she came upon one friend after another. Some might have been lured out of the village to see Usain Bolt, but for the extended family of Australians, already exultant over the field victories of Eleanor Patterson and Dani Samuels, the fastest man in the world was merely a curtain-raiser to the main event, Sally Pearson. In the lead-up, her silence had been golden. Now, her gold would not be silent.