Sally slips up but she remains one of the 10 Games favourites
From decathlon to discus, pole vault to relay and high jump to hurdles, Simon Turnbull selects our leading tips for glory at the London Olympics
Sally Pearson is the hottest favourite for track and field gold at the Olympic Games but, like the Brits, she too experienced the pre-Olympic jitters at Crystal Palace yesterday.
As Phillips Idowu and Tiffany Porter departed, suffering from ill-timed injuries, the hurdling wizard from Oz suffered a nasty jolt to her pride and a dint to her shield of invincibility.
The thoroughbred from Australia's Gold Coast arrived at the London Grand Prix unbeaten by any of her rivals in 31 hurdles races, outdoors and in, stretching back to August 2010. She did lose in Brussels at the end of last summer but it was one of the barriers that beat her. She fell at the sixth hurdle.
Yesterday the second hurdle she negotiated in a warm-up for her heat led to her downfall. Pearson clattered into it and tumbled to the rain-soaked track.
The Female World Athlete of the Year picked herself up but was clearly rattled. The usual decisive thrust of acceleration was absent as she rose from the blocks. She had to dig deep to hold off Kellie Wells, pipping the American by 0.01sec in 12.53sec.
When it came to the final, Pearson struggled again and this time Wells got the better of her, prevailing by 0.02sec in 12.57sec. And so, in the London rain, the hottest athletics favourite for the 2012 Games suffered something of a dampening. Such are the perils of being a supposed untouchable heading into Olympic battle.
Still, the 25-year-old's pedigree remains unquestioned – even if her profile back home is nowhere near that of Australia's other sporting thoroughbred. "Black Caviar is huge," Pearson said on Thursday (she declined to comment after her setback yesterday) about the horse that remains unbeaten in 22 races after victory in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Ascot. "Her race stops the nation, and mine doesn't.
"She's a superstar in Australia. I've done a photo-shoot with her and I was overwhelmed. I wanted to get a hoof print on a piece of paper as an autograph."
As a naturally shy soul who admits to slapping on her "game face" whenever the media spotlight comes round to her, Pearson does not begrudge her relatively low public profile. Indeed, in the countdown to London 2012, she is enjoying living in anonymity in the Garden of England.
Her mother, Anne McLellan, came from Kent and Pearson has been staying in the county with her aunt for the past three weeks, while fine tuning her Olympic preparations at Tonbridge School, the Australian track and field team's pre-Games training base. "It's nice," she said. "I can go out to the shops and no-one knows who I am."
Not that Pearson needs to hide from the mounting pressure. Behind her bashful but highly-engaging exterior lies a core of steely determination that she will need to draw on now two weeks from the Games.
She is reluctant to discuss the subject, but it probably has much to do with her upbringing. Her mother – who moved to Australia in 1981 –raised her as a single parent, juggling several jobs to support Sally's burgeoning sporting ambitions.
"It's hard to say if I do or don't feel the pressure," Pearson pondered, "because I'm enjoying it so much and I find whatever pressure there is I thrive on."
Pearson was born in Sydney in 1986 but was living on the Gold Coast when the 2000 Olympics came to town. Like most Australians, and indeed any of the 110,000 of us who happened to be packed into Stadium Australia at the time, she will never forget the nerve-tingling night when Cathy Freeman stayed in front all the way with her glorious home run in the 400m final.
That summer Freeman flew 11,000 miles to London to prepare for the Sydney Games away from the pressure cooker of home, training with Donna Fraser at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton.
"I prefer this situation I think," Pearson said, "although I think I would have still been able to handle it. But I'm glad that I don't have that sort of pressure because everyone was saying, 'I'm going to watch Cathy Freeman's final,' before the opening ceremony had even started.
"That's unbelievable. And I'm guessing Jessica Ennis has got the same thing – everyone's going to watch Jessica win her gold medal and she hasn't even set foot in the village yet.
"It's unbelievable how people can adjust to their surroundings and to what people are saying to them, because it would have been terribly hard. I was reading Cathy Freeman's book and she said she didn't even realise how many people were shouting for her. She kept hearing this buzz and it was only when she got into the home straight that she worked out it was the crowd cheering for her.
"I think that's what gave her that lift to run home and win for them. I think some people can just really put themselves in a bubble and forget about all of the distractions and just focus on what they do.
"That's what I'm doing… I'm just putting myself in a bubble and enjoying the ride."
Until yesterday, that is. At the end of the meeting Britain's Olympians were paraded round the track on an open topped double decker bus with the rain hammering down. The girl from the Gold Coast must have known how they felt.
Anna Chicherova (Russia) High jump
With her great rival Blanka Vlasic ruling herself out after struggling to overcome injury, the Armenian-born Russian looks a good bet to add the Olympic crown to the World Championship title she won on countback from Vlasic in Daegu last year. Tops the world rankings with 2.03m.
Allyson Felix (US) 200m
Clocked a stunning 21.69sec at the US trials, breaking Florence Griffith Joyner's 1988 trials record. Has won three world titles at her favoured distance but only two silvers at the Olympics. Unlikely to be the bridesmaid again this time.
Renaud Lavillenie (France) Pole vault
Showed he is the supreme competitor when challenged by German Bjorn Otto at the European Championships in Helsinki, emerging with the gold and a world- leading 5.97m clearance. Won world indoor title in Istanbul in March and is unbeaten this summer.
Pamela Jelimo (Kenya) 800m
The Olympic champion in Beijing in 2008 and the African sensation of the women's two-lap event before the advent of Caster Semenya, she has returned to dominant form in 2012, winning the world indoor title and topping the outdoor rankings.
Ashton Eaton (US) Decathlon
Smashed Roman Sebrle's world record with 9,039 points at the US trials last month. He started off with a 10.21sec 100m, faster than Dwain Chambers's winning time in that event at the GB trials. His rivals can only pray he has burned himself out.
Usain Bolt and Co (Jamaica) 4 x 100m relay
The Lightning Bolt might not be a red- hot favourite in the 100m or 200m, but only a dropped baton is likely to stop him adding to his Olympic medal haul in the 4 x 100m relay. With Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell in tow, it should be Jamaica v the clock.
Robert Harting (Germany) Discus
Unbeaten in 16 competitions in 2011 and in eight so far this year. Finished out of the medals, down in fourth, at the Beijing Olympics, but won the world title in 2009 and 2011. Will start as the red-hot favourite in London.
David Rudisha (Kenya) 800m
Untouchable in all five of his races in 2012, he has lost just once in 36 races in the past three years. Stands a second and half clear at the top of the world rankings with 1min 41.55sec. Has the world record and the world title – now Olympic gold beckons.
LaShawn Merritt (US) 400m
Pipped by Kirani James to the world title in Daegu shortly after his return from a doping suspension last year, but has been a class apart this summer. Thanks to the lifting of the IOC ban on returning dopers, looks set to retain his Olympic crown.
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