Pragmatic Pearson has no time for unhappy omens
If Usain Bolt strikes you as the hottest favourite for an athletics gold at this summer's Olympic Games, perhaps it's time you thought a little more about Sally Pearson.
Just as Bolt was 2011 IAAF male athlete of the year, so 100m hurdler Pearson was voted the world's best female. Unlike Bolt, Pearson also won World Championship gold - and in a time that no-one had got close to since the dubious days of the late 1980s.
With that personal best 0.2 seconds faster than any of her rivals and a record of 10 wins in her 11 big races last summer, the 25-year-old Queenslander has arrived in Oslo this week knowing two things: that Australia expects, and that she must deliver.
"Everyone has wanted a piece of me in Australia," she admits. "It's so much fun to be leaving - I've been counting down from seven weeks to go. I'm so excited to get to Europe and be ready to run."
Not since Cathy Freeman has her home country invested so much hope in an athlete. "There is a page of Olympic history waiting for her name," declared The Australian newspaper, around the time she was packing her bags. "When you are in the kind of form she is in at the moment, you have to take advantage," says Eric Hollingsworth, Athletics Australia's high performance manager.
Others might find the pressure too much to bear. Pearson, with a chipper confidence stereotypical of her home state, is resolutely pragmatic.
"It's not terrifying if you don't think about it," she says, of her chances of joining compatriots Shirley Strickland, Maureen Caird and Debbie Flintoff-King as Olympic hurdles gold medallists.
"You have to make sure your mind is on yourself. I definitely feel like I'm going in as number one.
"No-one will be stepping out on that track with the intention of coming second. It will definitely be hard. But if I can get back to PB shape, then it will be very hard to beat me."
I mention an unhappy omen: no woman has ever won the sprint hurdles title at the World Championships and then followed it with Olympic gold the following year.
Pearson guffaws. "Yeah, I've seen that. But those sorts of things don't bother me. I can only control what my body does. All the outside distractions I can't, so I just leave them as they are - as distractions.
"I've put all those superstitions to bed in the past, especially at the World Championships. I blew that out of the water."
Ah, the infamous Daegu cover curse. Until Pearson's storming run, no athlete featured on the front page of the daily official programme - Bolt, Dayron Robles, Steve Hooker and Yelena Isinbayeva - had won gold. When Pearson did, she celebrated by stamping theatrically on the offending publication.
"It actually ended with the walker [Olga Kaniskina]," she laughs. "She broke it. Then suddenly the curse was shifted so it was only affecting things in the stadium. It was like, ah, make your mind up!
"I think everyone on the cover had been a world champion before and I wasn't, so I took it as a nice compliment for me that they respected me and my results that season and thought I was good enough to be on it. Plus I think Blanka Vlasic was begging not to be on it..."
Pearson was triumphant in Daegu. Photo: Getty
Pearson's time that night, a blistering 12.28 seconds, was the fourth fastest in history, just 0.07 seconds off the world record set by Bulgaria's Yordanka Donkova in 1988.
Both the time of Donkova and the woman she herself surpassed, compatriot Ginka Zagorcheva, are tainted by suspicions of illegal doping. While neither ever tested positive, there is sufficient doubt that many insiders in Daegu last summer rated Pearson's mark as an unofficial best ever. Does she agree?
"No. No point. It's not a world record. It's not in the history books as a world record. No matter whether people think [Donchova's] record is clean or not, it's still there. It hasn't been scratched out. What's on paper is what matters."
But she must know, as a student of her event, that those times were extraordinary? Media training aside, does she not tacitly agree with those experts who consider her the fastest in history?
"Well, they're not officials saying that, are they? They're opinions. That's all they are.
"It's not the officials saying, 'Oh, we'll just make it the supposedly clean world record'. We don't know if it was clean or not. We don't have any proof of that, so it stands.
"I don't target that record in any of my races. Obviously everyone wants to run as fast as possible to give themselves the confidence, but for me it's more about winning every single race.
"It would nice to run a similar time to the one I ran in Daegu, but world records don't always give you Olympic gold medals. People can also take world records away from you. But they can't take away Olympic golds."
Pearson, raised by her Kent-born mother, Ann, in the absence of her father, has had to work to get to her current exalted status.
Ann worked extra jobs to get her young daughter coaching and physio, and took her to the Little Athletics state championships in Townsville in 1999 where she was spotted by her first - and permanent - coach, Sharon Hannon.
Pearson has responded with a relentless dedication, putting in sessions so hard that, "I actually felt like I was going to die." It is why, she says, she celebrates with such wild abandon when big wins and medals come her way.
"Oh God yeah. You put your heart and your soul into your training, and when you get to competition you want a result that reflects all that hard work you've been doing.
"It's a huge release, an energy uplift. I don't know if it happens to everyone, but I simply can't hold it back. I've been holding it back for so long."
Has she imagined what it might feel like to stand on top of the podium in London?
"I definitely think about it. I thought about it at the World Championships. But at the same time I think about the worst-case scenario, which is not winning the race.
"I think about those negatives as a way to keep me grounded, to realise that it may not go to plan. Really quickly I try to cross it out of my mind, but I always allow myself to think about it for a second before I go back to thinking positive, thinking about what I want to do and then making sure I do it."
Twelve years ago Freeman defied the pressure to win 400m gold in Sydney. Asked recently about Pearson's chances of doing the same, she was sanguine: "Sally has such a wonderful ability to focus, and really keep her life simple and effective."
Her appointed successor shrugs.
"If you keep it simple it's easy. Make it complicated and it's hard.
"That's why I think about those worst-case scenarios. You have to stay grounded. It keeps your thinking simple, and it keeps you hungry."