Sally Pearson wins 100 hurdles

LONDON -- Sally Pearson stood in the rain, hands on her head, eyes fixed on the big screen, desperately willing her name to show up first so she wouldn't be another Olympic letdown for Australia.

For what seemed longer than the 100-meter hurdles took to race, she waited and wondered if Dawn Harper had snuck up and beat her to an Olympic gold medal again.

The front-runner for the last two seasons, Pearson got out of the blocks quickly and had a lead until Harper lunged at the finish line.

"I didn't realize how close Dawn was until the end," she said. "I said in my head, 'Please don't let this happen. I need this."

When her name flashed up first, Pearson knew she was No. 1 in an Olympic-record 12.35 seconds, narrowly in front of three Americans: 2008 gold medalist Harper; Kellie Wells, who had beaten the Australian in the last race coming into London; and Lolo Jones, who missed out on an Olympic medal again.

"Relief was the first thing I felt, and then shock," Pearson said. "I really wanted this. I've worked so hard. To be able to finally have that result beside my name is just the best thing in the world."

Pearson was considered a bit lucky to get a silver medal in Beijing four years ago, and she celebrated as if she had won a massive lottery. This time, the gold took longer to sink in.

Jones had been the leading hurdler in 2008, and had a decent lead in the Olympic final until she hit the penultimate hurdle and faded to finish seventh. That was the race that indelibly changed their careers.

It was a confidence boost for Pearson, convincing her she could win an Olympic gold medal.

"I've believed in myself for the last four years more than anything else," she said. "When I won silver in Beijing, that's when I knew I could be the best in the world."

Pearson now holds all the big titles in the sprint hurdles -- she won the world championships at Daegu last year, then the world indoors at Istanbul in March. She was voted the IAAF's female athlete of the year for 2011.

But it was the Olympic gold medal she had wanted the most since she was an impressionable teen watching Cathy Freeman win the Olympic 400 meters in 2000, one of the defining events of the Sydney Games.

"I thought," Pearson recounted, "I want that as well."

No Australian runner was under more intense pressure than Freeman was in Sydney, where she lit the Olympic cauldron to open the games and then carried the weight of a nation's expectations to a gold medal.

But Pearson's win still had great significance for a country that prides itself on punching above its weight in international competition.

Until her race, Australia had been languishing at the London Games, where it went in with big statements about a top-five finish.

Instead, the powerful swimming squad only picked up one gold medal, and that put the rest of the athletes under pressure.

None more than Pearson, the country's only genuine favorite for a track and field gold.

"The whole of Australia wanted me to win. I wanted to win -- I call that support," she said. "At times I may have felt the pressure, but I'd quickly put that to the back of my mind and say, 'I want this, and I'm not going to let anyone stop me."

Freeman was quick to offer high praise, posting her congratulations on Twitter: "Simply fantastic Sally. Well deserved. Well done!!!"

Australians got up early to watch the race on TV, and many awoke to images of Pearson yelling with joy, falling onto her back on the track, with utter relief.

She got to her knees, then to her feet and quickly ran to the crowd and grabbed an Australian flag. On a full victory lap, she stopped to salute a group of fans waving green-and-gold flags and holding up inflatable boxing Kangaroos behind the start line.

Some had their doubts after Wells ended Pearson's 2012 unbeaten streak with victory in a warmup meet at London last month, giving the Americans high hopes of catching her again on a bad day. The U.S. hurdlers all achieved something, even in defeat. Harper finally broke the 12.40 barrier -- finishing in 12.37 -- and Wells ran a personal best. For Jones, her season-best time wasn't quite good enough for an Olympic medal.

"I had a good first four hurdles and then I got too upright and I didn't keep it together," Jones said. "At least I can lift my head a little higher and tell my kids about when their mom ran the Olympics.

"At least this time it was a clean, smooth race. It's a season's best so I'm pleased, but obviously I'm crushed."