Hurdler Clay leading Australia's charge in the post-Pearson era

Liz Clay takes a selfie with teammates at the Tokyo Olympic Games team announcement Matt King/Getty Images

There's no better metaphor than overcoming hurdles to describe Liz Clay's rise from the shadows of the great Sally Pearson.

It's a journey riddled with bad luck, injuries and heartbreak.

But it's driven her all the way to an Olympics berth at the Tokyo Games.

On Saturday morning [AEST], Clay will show the world what Australia's next cohort of 100m hurdlers is made of in the post-Pearson era.

Her domestic season has already drawn comparisons between them because after all, Clay has crossed into a territory where only Pearson has been before.

In February, the speedster clocked 12.72s at the ACT Championships to become the second-fastest hurdler in Australian history.

It was the second in a seven-race winning streak that Clay crossed the line at sub-13 seconds.

Races aside, the 26-year-old hurdler also has been immersed in a Pearson-like environment on her road to Tokyo.

She trains at the same Gold Coast track as the two-time world champion. And she shares the same mentor in Sharon Hannon.

But that's where Clay draws a firm line. Her rise through the ranks of Australian athletics has been far from the same.

"Sally has definitely paved the way for Australian female hurdlers. I say this all the time, we've had such different paths," Clay told ESPN.

"She achieved so much more than I have at this point, but she was a child prodigy. She was so quick from an early age, just a stand out. Never had trouble making a team, never had trouble qualifying.

"I've kind of done the opposite. I wasn't naturally fast or strong. I really had to work to find that speed.

"I'm a great hurdler but I had to put in some hard yards to get into her caliber. And I wouldn't say I'm there yet. We've just had a very different journey."

Indeed Clay has been hit by hurdle after hurdle on the road to her Olympics debut.

A broken foot denied her the chance to contest the 2014 Junior World Championships.

Ahead of the 2017 World University Games, she was struck down by the flu and finished last in her heat.

And in 2018, she broke her navicular bone while racing in Belgium and later missed out on Commonwealth Games qualification by 0.06s. "It was a bit of a long haul. A fight. It eventually got me to where I am," Clay said.

Adding to the load, Clay was adjusting to life away from her Sydney-based family for the first time.

She relocated to the Gold Coast in mid-2017 to work with coach Hannan, in a move she describes as impulsive.

But that decision worked out in the long run as her athletics career hit a new level in 2020, crossing the line at 12.94s to win the Melbourne Track Classic.

It was her first sub-13s run. She's since clocked that seven more times, including her ACT triumph.

"That race [in Canberra] was such a long time coming for me. I just never knew when it was going to happen, or if it was going to happen," Clay said.

"When I crossed the line, I was surprised but so stoked for myself that I finally executed a race I knew I could do.

"Having that time next to my name, gives me so much confidence going into Tokyo. I think 12.7s made the final at the last Olympics. I know my best is far under that."

The benchmark for the Rio 2016 final was Britain's Tiffany Porter at 12.82s.

Having already beaten that twice this season, Clay has her sights set on becoming the first Australian to make the Olympic final since Pearson claimed gold at London 2012.

Her time to shine comes on Saturday morning, with Clay heading into heat two with the second-fastest time of that start list.

Having secured Olympics selection in April, Clay opted to stay in Australia for her final training block due to COVID-19.

Athletics Australia held extra meets alongside that training camp to optimize the team's preparations.

"As much as I would have loved to be in Europe competing, it's just not viable this year," Clay said.

"I didn't need to chase a qualifier, so it was best for us to stay put and in the environment we know."

Although Clay wasn't able to contest the world's best, the talent in Australia is commanding attention with some of the nation's fastest-ever hurdlers still active.

There's a lot to be excited about in the post-Pearson era, with the likes of Michelle Jenneke, Celeste Mucci and Hannah Jones also running sub-13s times.

"That sub-13s barrier is so sought after, it's almost this elusive time that hurdlers try to achieve. Once someone does it, who you're either racing against or is not that far away from you, it becomes so much more achievable," Clay said.

"This season, it was me. But for me personally, it's going back a few years seeing Sally on the world stage.

"I would turn up to the track and train at the same time as her, then turn on the TV and she was racing in the Diamond League in London. It just makes it more achievable, it's kind of like - girls can do this.

"Whether it's that we've all had this extra training under our belt due to Covid, or the level has been turned up. Now there's a new standard in Australia. Everyone has just stepped up which is great."

Just as Pearson inspired a generation of Australian athletes, Clay hopes to do the same.

With almost 80k followers on Instagram, she wants to use the social media platform to help others on their injury journey.

"When I was a late teen going through those injuries, if I had someone like myself to look up to and see they'd been through and actually reach their potential - it would have made my journey a lot less stressful and I would have seen the light at the end of the tunnel," Clay said.

"I definitely want to inspire people and I get Instagram DM's everyday asking 'how did I do this? How did I stay motivated?' I'm going through an injury. I definitely want that to be part of my journey and people to see that."