By AAP’s John Salvado
For any number of reasons, Cathy Freeman’s triumph in the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics arguably stands alone in the annals of Australian track and field history.
Having lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony, Freeman carried the hopes of a nation to victory.
That she was the first Indigenous athlete to win individual gold at Olympic level only added to the significance of her triumph.
Freeman’s place as an all-time Australian sporting great is unchallenged — and it always will be.
But in winning gold in the 100m hurdles at the world titles in London on Saturday night, Sally Pearson can now lay claim to an even better record than Freeman in her favoured event at global championships.
Pearson’s three major titles came at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2011 and 2017 world championships.
Freeman’s three 400m titles were at the Sydney Olympics and the 1997 and 1999 world championships.
But Pearson has also won two major silver medals, while Freeman only has the one.
For the first time, a good case can be made that the 30-year-old Pearson is Australia’s greatest track and field athlete of the modern era.
Another interesting comparison is with the great Betty Cuthbert, who died earlier this month aged 79.
In the amateur era before the world championships, Cuthbert won four Olympic track gold medals in four different events.
Cuthbert is the only track and field athlete — male or female — to win Olympic titles in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
Cathy Freeman crosses the finish line to win the Womens 400m final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. (Dean Lewins: AAP)
Pearson pushed away the doubts to claim glory
Even when there were plenty of reasons to think otherwise, Pearson never doubted herself.
Just as importantly, neither did those in her tight inner circle.
After several seasons wracked by injury, the decision 12 months ago by the hurdler to coach herself got the blessing of those who mattered most — including husband Kieran Pearson.
Pearson’s win in London was her third gold medal at a major championships. (AP: David J. Phillip)
Then she went to work.
“(She amazes me) every day,” said Kieran Pearson, who travels the world track and field circuit with his wife.
“She is the first person to do that, anyone would be impressed.
“I have just been lucky enough to see the whole journey and all the struggles she has gone through behind the scenes.
“I never doubted (the self-coaching) — she knows her body, she has been doing it more than long enough.
“She has got the determination that whatever she sets her mind to she is going to do it and she is going to do it properly.”
Once Pearson arrived at the pre-championships training camp in Tonbridge she handed responsibility for the final stage of her build-up to Australian head coach Craig Hilliard and team coach Matt Beckenham.
But the people she wanted to thank first on crossing the line to claim world championships gold in the 100m hurdles were those who had been there every day for the past year and more.
“I’ve got the most tight-knit little squad, I call them Team Pearson – my friends and my mum and my husband and my training partners, (although) I’ve only got two of them,” she said.
“They’re the ones I have to thank tonight because I don’t think I would be here without them.
“They had more belief than me coming into tonight.”