No hurdles too high for Pearson in Olympic year

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By JOHN PYE, Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Sally Pearson doesn't bother trying to conceal her ambitions now that she's a world champion.

An Olympic gold medal is top of her list for 2012. A world record in the 100-meter hurdles would be a bonus.

With the London Olympics track program still five months away, Pearson is setting her sights high for her first trip to this weekend's world indoor championships, targeting a time of 7.70 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles. The world record is 7.68.

She can afford to be confident at Istanbul. She's renowned for being quick out of the blocks, and she's started the year with a bang.

Pearson won the national Olympic trials in 12.49 seconds on a wet and miserable weekend in Melbourne, the fastest time ever for a 100 hurdles on Australian soil. No woman has run a faster hurdles race this early in the year.

Being Australia's best chance of a track gold medal in London comes with enormous expectations.

"Yeah, I know I've got pressure, but I can deal with it. If I was going to falter under pressure, I would have done it tonight," she said on Saturday. "I've shown that I can do world-class times at the start of the year and that'll probably scare my competitors a bit overseas."

Starting now.

She ran the fourth-fastest time of her career on what she thought was going to be a bad night. Pearson didn't even need to be competing because she'd already been nominated to the Australian team and could have been focused on the world indoors.

The 25-year-old Pearson was halfway through her hurdles final and starting to think her timing was terrible.

Moments later, she was bounding back up the straight, high-fiving fans who'd ignored the rain and were hanging over a barricade only a few yards from the outside lane to try to get a close-up view.

Pearson set a PB in the 200 later Saturday night for her third win of the meet — she won the 100 title into a strong headwind the previous evening.

Eric Hollingsworth, high performance manager for Athletics Australia, has been monitoring Pearson closely since she was 15 and is expecting big things.

"Well, she's a miracle girl at the moment with 12.50 like that," Hollingsworth told The Associated Press. "All we can say is, we've got to keep pushing. And if she's running 12.50 now, then you've got to be thinking about the world record at some point."

The 100 hurdles world record has stood since 1988, when Bulgaria's Yordanka Donkova ran 12.21. Pearson's world championship-winning time of 12.28 at Daegu last September was the fastest time in almost 20 years. That came amid a run of 19 consecutive race wins before stumbling over a hurdle in her last race of the year at Brussels.

Hollingsworth is conscious that Pearson, the IAAF's 2011 Female World Athlete of the Year, shouldn't be peaking too early.

"Hard thing for us in Australia is always to keep a perspective. It is still March and there's a long way for us to get ready in August," he said. "All we can say is, we've got to keep pushing. One thing we don't want is for our athletes to settle."

The run on Saturday night was just part of the buildup for her to peak at the Olympics.

"Given the conditions tonight. You've seen this in March. To run 12.50. She's got to be somewhere there when we get her to full peak and she's done another bit of base work and the momentum comes," he said. "She's got to be not too far away."

Pearson endeared herself to the Australian public after an emotionally raw and candid TV interview immediately after winning the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in a race where American favorite Lolo Jones tripped on the penultimate hurdle and slipped from first to seventh.

Jones' U.S. teammate Dawn Harper won in 12.54. Pearson, then known by her maiden name of Sally McLellan, was next.

She hopped up and down constantly for several minutes in celebration, then admitted on Australian TV that she'd lied in earlier interviews when she limited her expectations to just reaching the final.

She won the hearts of Australians again in 2010 after being denied a gold medal in the 100 meters at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi following a lengthy hearing triggered by England's protest about a false start. In a teary interview, she expressed her disappointed but vowed to improve. She won the hurdles at the same meet, and that set her on the path to her run to the world title in South Korea last year.

Other Australian athletes put in Olympic qualifying performances at the meet in Melbourne on the weekend, and other world champions were in the fields, but there's no doubt who the 3,000 or so spectators who filed into a windy Lakeside Stadium wanted to see.

Dozens of young girls were in the crowd, some pleading for autographs and handshakes after her hurdles win. She obliged where she could, and did media interviews in the rain to try to keep everyone happy.

She also has a weekly diary in the mass-circulation Sydney-based Daily Telegraph and her longtime coach, Sharon Hannon, even wrote a column for the national newspaper The Australian on Saturday.

"She's obviously the golden girl," Hollingsworth said. "But it's actually part of the training process with how Sharon does things.

"She wants her athlete to do lots of speed. Lots of repeat performances. Get used to the ups and downs, the warmup, the cool down, because that's what a championships is like. So she's done that forever."

Hannon, who started coaching Pearson in 1999, wrote that her star pupil was timing her run to perfection.

"We are preparing to win gold in the 100 hurdles at the London Olympics. Will the winning time matter? No. The fastest winning time in an Olympic 100m hurdles was 12.37 seconds in 2004 by Joanna Hayes of the US. And the fastest winning time in a world championships before Sally's personal best of 12.28s in 2011 was also a 12.37s by Gail Devers in 1999 at Seville.

"But what really matters is crossing the finish line first. It is our intention for Sally to cross the line first in the heats on August 6, and again in the semifinals and finals on August 7. 'Project Gold' is about all three races."

Pearson herself thinks the world record will be tough to break, "but as I've been saying anything's possible, especially with the sort of shape I'm in at the moment."

"I think it is possible, but at the same time all I'm focussing on is winning the gold medal."

She's taking the same approach to the world indoors.

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