The Weekly

EXCLUSIVE: Sally Pearson opens up about her battle with anxiety and why she became her own coach

The one-time world champion opens up to The Weekly about her battle with anxiety and her decision to be her own coach - and the success it brought her.

By Lizzie Wilson
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
Self-doubt is one of modern life's most debilitating curses. Even for those who have scaled the heights of greatness, anxiety is sometimes so powerful it can lay them low with a sideways glance, a raised eyebrow or even a friendly word from a complete stranger.
For world champion hurdler Sally Pearson, who has suffered from anxiety most of her adult life, one of those crippling moments came most recently at her local supermarket.
"I was at the local shops. This lovely lady called my name and I froze. On the track, with sometimes 80,000 people in the stands, I'm completely in control. Put me at the checkout, where I'm just little old Sal, and it comes over me like a tsunami and it's far greater than shyness – I feel like a deer in headlights!"
Sally, as focused and ice cool as she appears, makes her living overcoming hurdles. Her ongoing battle with anxiety, something she rarely speaks about, is just another hurdle for this champion.
She privately struggles with its incapacitating side-effects every day, yet manages to take it in her stride, never allowing it to affect her ambitions both on and off the track, or her dogged determination to be number one.
Sally is the 2011 and 2017 World Champion and the 2012 Olympic Champion in the 100m hurdles. She has won eight gold medals from various championships throughout her career. Photo by Yianni Aspradakis
Nevertheless, Sally, 31, doesn't shy away from the topic as she outlines the extraordinary transformation she's made over the past two years in preparation for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in her home town of the Gold Coast.
"I know what people say about me and understand why they think I am a little odd. I'm really open to talking about it, because I get better with it every day," she says.
"I suffer from a condition known as social anxiety, which has been at times more debilitating than any of the physical injuries," she explains. "I'm not great in situations where I'm out of my depth or feel I have to talk to someone and have no idea what to say."
WATCH BELOW: The 2018 XXI Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony. Story continues after video.
"I know what people say about me and understand why they think I am a little odd.
"I'm really open to talking about it, because I get better with it every day. I suffer from a condition known as social anxiety, which has been at times more debilitating than any of the physical injuries," she explains.
"I'm not great in situations where I'm out of my depth or feel I have to talk to someone and have no idea what to say."
One former teammate describe Sally as "a chameleon, a hybrid of awkward meets genuine warmth". Photo by Yianni Aspradakis
This form of anxiety, according to the experts, is characterised by a discomfort or a fear when a person is in a social interaction that involves a concern for being judged or evaluated by others.
"It could be why so many people read me wrong. They see me as a bit tricky – they take that gritty steeliness, and my sometimes clumsy social skills, and minds are made up that I'm either arrogant or aloof. Or seemingly so self-absorbed I only function when I'm on the track," Sally says.
"Nothing could be further from the truth."
Before her retirement this year, Sally was one of the top five sportspeople in the country, the 100m hurdles event being her speciality. Getty Images
By her own admission, she's a whole lot more than that. The current 100m women's hurdles world champion, and Olympic gold and silver medallist in the same event, is a tragic "foodie", an adventure junkie who dreams to one day rescue and home every stray dog she finds.
One of the top five sportspeople in our country, she's a no-nonsense woman who doesn't suffer fools and abhors mediocrity.
"I'm a high achiever. I hate the feeling of losing almost as much as I love a win. I'm a proud perfectionist – I don't believe you can be the best in the world at what you do without that DNA. If that's my pathology, bring it on!"
Sally (centre) with mum Anne and husband Kieran at the 2012 Australian Athlete of the Year Awards. Getty Images
Born on September 19, 1986, Sally Elizabeth McLellan arrived into this world with one guarantee – her single mum, Anne, would become her strongest ally.
Mum Anne is a humble woman. She doesn't do limelight and flashy fanfare – she doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
She's worked full-time since Sally was five months old, and in the mid-1990s relocated from Sydney's eastern suburbs for a better life on Queensland's Gold Coast.
"Over the years, there have been so many stories about Mum's sacrifices – she didn't have a car, sometimes she worked three jobs to support me. Can we finally put to rest all the 'poor us' rubbish? Lots of people don't have cars and, to be honest, having to catch the bus to training was all part of moulding me into the person I am today – grateful and appreciative, and not some spoon-fed spoilt brat."
"I knew I had talent, I was going to be a champion, likely a world champion, but I didn't know in what," recalls Sally. Getty Images
"I wonder how many of my peers over the years had that same dream. It translates into every aspect of life, not just sport."
"To be the best teacher, the greatest lawyer, it's the same deal – dream and dream big. I never let myself think I couldn't do it. Because I figured if I didn't someone else will."
Sally meets her majesty Queen Elizabeth II during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Getty Images
During her high school years at Helensvale State High School in Queensland's south-east, Sally met her now husband, Kieran Pearson, and knew from the first date he was the one.
"Kieran is the ever-supportive husband, my rock, and knows how I tick. I've always said I would be the same person married or not, but I run so much better and do everything better when he's around," she says.
WATCH BELOW: Aussie athlete and four-time gold medalist Betty Cuthbert at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Story continues after video.
More recently, she's been the master of her own destiny, quite literally, having decided to be her own coach after a succession of disasters.
She parted ways in 2013 with longtime mentor Sharon Hannan, who throughout their 14-year partnership was more a second mum to the young champion. They simply outgrew one another.
Sally concedes she foolishly jumped from the fry pan into a smouldering fire. After a series of failed tenures, she dumped the last man standing, a local podiatrist and part-time coach Ashley Mahoney, declaring the relationship was fraught with dysfunction from day one.
Sally announced her retirement from athletics in August 2019 - just one year out from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, at which she planned to compete. She cited ongoing physical injuries as the primary reason. Getty Images
"Reports of me self-coaching sent shock waves through the sport.
"The odds were against me, there's no doubt. I'd missed two years injured, was turning 30 and had worked my way through three coaches in two years.
"I had to save my career and decided the only person who was capable of doing that was me."
Months of tough training and planning followed.
Kieran graciously followed his wife across the world while she ran from meet to meet, knowing the closer they got to the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, the more pressure loomed for the athletics star. Falls and losses would surely mean the game was up.
On August 13 last year inside the city's Olympic Stadium, in just a dozen seconds, the fairytale comeback was complete, Sally reclaiming the gold she knew was rightfully hers.
Sally with her dual gold medals - one for achieving first place in the 100m hurdles and the other for coaching herself to success. Photo by Yianni Aspradakis
"Seeing the number 1 next to my name up on the big screen, representing Australia – it's hard to imagine ever feeling more proud."
"There was a very funny moment after the race when an official handed me a package. I asked, 'What's this?' He explained that was the medal for my coach – I couldn't stop laughing! Here I was standing on the exact same spot where I won Olympic Gold in 2012, holding not one, but two World Championship medals."
"It was a turning point moment, knowing I'd just been rewarded for being a top-shelf athlete and a world-class coach – it doesn't get much better."

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