WAUKESHA, Wis.—As far as comebacks go, Chris Pearson’s was the sort of legends.
The Beloit native set the WIAA Division 1 state record in the intermediate hurdles as a senior in 1991—which has only been tied once since.
After his experience as a collegiate hurdler at UW-Milwaukee soured him on the sport, Pearson gave it up for seven years.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. He revived his hurdling career and nine years later, at the age of 28, Pearson crossed his final hurdle on May 25, 2002, capturing the 110-meter high hurdle title at the NCAA Division III National Outdoor Championships at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He won in a personal best time of 14.26 seconds.
Saturday, Pearson’s comeback will be celebrated as he enters the Carroll University Athletic Hall of Fame. He already is a member of the Beloit Historical Society’s Elliott-Perring Sports Hall of Fame (2011 inductee).
“I can’t say I’m shocked,” Pearson, 47, said of the Carroll honor. “When you win a national title you think that eventually they’re going to get around to you. But now that it is happening it is kind of overwhelming. I am honored and it should be fun.”
Pearson’s hurdling career began when he was a sophomore at Beloit Memorial after a suggestion from then-head coach Gene Weeden. The Purple Knights were blessed with a bevy of sprinters—twins Keith and Kenny Smith, Duane Jenkins, Kevin Smith and Ryan Anderson. As a sophomore, Pearson had trouble keeping up with them, so Weeden said hurdling would be his ticket to a regular varsity spot.
It turned out to be fortuitous for both Pearson and the Knights, who were state champions his senior year.
As a sophomore, Pearson was fifth in the 110 high hurdles in the Big Eight Conference Championships. The following year, Terry Davis (now Sahlih As-Salaam) transferred to Beloit and along with hurdler/jumper Jimmy Carter, that “big three” began to dominate the conference. Davis (a 2013 Beloit Hall inductee) would go on to win the highs and finish fourth in the 300 intermediates at state while Pearson was disappointed with his eighth place in both events.
That just made him hungrier his senior year. By then, Pearson was also a tremendous sprinter. He ran a wind-aided, hand-timed 10.7 in the 100-meters in a dual meet, although Weeden credited him with a 10.9.
In the Big Eight meet, a sensational anchor by Pearson helped Beloit edge Madison Memorial 113-111 for its fourth straight league title.
Heading to state, Davis and Pearson were ranked 1-2 in the intermediates with Davis running a 37.1 in the sectional and Pearson a 37.2. Davis was also ranked No. 1 in the 110 highs at 14.2 while five other hurdlers ran 14.5, including Pearson. He also teamed with Davis, Victor Conley and Johnnie McGahee to turn in the fastest 1,600 relay time.
At state, Pearson won the intermediates in a state mark of 37.49. Carter was second in the triple jump and Pearson was second to Davis in the 110 highs. The 1600 relay also won, clinching the state title for the Knights.
The University of Wisconsin and Minnesota both contacted Pearson, but he had already officially committed to UWM.
With the Panthers, he soon found over-training was the rule, often resulting in stress fractures and torn ligaments. So he walked away from the sport.
Seven years later, he was taking some classes at Carroll when a former UWM teammate coaching there talked him into giving hurdling another try.
Pearson experienced more aches and pains than ever before, but he pushed himself back into competitive shape and soon became the best in the MWC.
With Carroll, he became a three-time D-III All-American. A three-time MWC champion in the hurdles (55-meter indoor hurdles in 2001 and 2002 and 110 high hurdles outdoors in 2002). He set several school records and still holds both the 55-meter hurdle record and 110 highs record. He set the MWC record in the 55 hurdles in 2001.
At nationals, he was fourth in the 55 hurdles indoors in 2002 and fifth in the 55 hurdles indoors in 2001. The highlight of his career was winning nationals in the 110 hurdles outdoors in 2002.
Pearson and wife Heather eventually settled in the Waukesha area, moved to Milwaukee and then recently returned to Waukesha. He does interior office construction for Office Solutions.
He also fulfilled his goal of coaching track. He has been head girls coach at Waukesha West High School the past 13 years and has also helped out with the boys. His girls have been state runnerup twice and state champs once. He also coached a state champion triple jumper.
He was in attendance coaching at Veterans Memorial Stadium in LaCrosse when his 300 record was tied in 2010 by Lechein Neblett of Madison Memorial.
“I tried to find him to congratulate him, but he was already headed back to Madison,” Pearson said. “That’s one of the longer-standing records now.”
Pearson has also coached girls cross country at Waukesha West and currently has a team with top-five state aspirations.
He may have the opportunity to coach his daughter someday. Sixth grader Zoui was one of the top cross country runners in her grade school.
“She definitely has some solid track potential,” he said. “She wants to try pole vaulting next. I’d love to see her try hurdling, but I’m not going to pressure her into it.”
She obviously has the genes.