Sunday, 23 August 2009

For Hooker, unorthodox gamble pays off

Steven Hooker of Australia celebrates a clearance at 5.90m to win the men's Pole Vault final  (Getty Images)

Steven Hooker of Australia celebrates a clearance at 5.90m to win the men's Pole Vault final (Getty Images)


    • Renaud Lavillenie congratulates the new World Champion Steve Hooker of Australia on his win in the men's Pole Vault in Berlin
    • Pole Vault Olympic and World Champion Steven Hooker of Australia is congratulated by his coach in Berlin
    • Steven Hooker of Australia celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's Pole Vault final at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics
    • Olympic Champion Steven Hooker of Australia competes in the men's Pole Vault final in Berlin
    Berlin, Germany - You would have thought that Steve Hooker, as Olympic champion in the men’s Pole Vault, world No.2 outdoors this season, and new owner this year of an indoor clearance that only Sergey Bubka has beaten, would have fancied his chances of taking gold at the World Championships here. Well, he didn’t.

    Hooker reacted with disbelief at his ‘luck’ in winning here after a remarkable sequence of events. It all began with a thigh injury suffered at the Australia team training camp in Cologne 12 days ago, which had him rating his chances of contesting the final at only 50-50, and then left him grimacing in the qualifying round.

    “I think potentially at these championships the gold is out of my reach,'' Hooker said after qualifying on Thursday. He was in obvious pain as he limped away from the mat.

    Two jumps to the World title

    Now, two days later, he is World champion after just three jumps – one in the qualifying round and only two in the final. But then Hooker is accustomed to living dangerously – one of his hobbies is skydiving.

    Not knowing how many attempts he might be capable of before his body packed up on him, Hooker waited for two hours after the final started before entering the competition.

    Counting warm-up, during which he watched and wondered while others jumped, it was three hours. When the bar was raised to 5.65m, with Hooker still on the sidelines harbouring grave doubts his condition to win any medal, let alone the gold, he sought comfort in the needle.

    “Early on, there was no way I thought I was going to jump,” the 27-year-old Hooker said. “I was feeling quite sore during my warm-up. I went and got a little jab from the doctor when the boys were jumping at 5.65m and, as that kicked-in, I thought I had more and more of a chance of jumping.”

    Taking his first vault at 5.85m, Hooker only narrowly brushed the bar but his second effort of the night, at 5.90m, was enough to take not only the gold but his first outdoor World Championships medal. For all the danger that the French challengers posed, they had to settle for silver and bronze as Romain Mesnil and Renaud Lavillenie, having come in at 5.50m, cleared 5.85m and 5.80m respectively.

    Dramatic, ‘challenging and crazy’ two weeks

    So eloquently did Hooker detail the drama that it is a story best told from here in his words.

    “Luckily for me, prior to this injury, I had done such fantastic training that I knew what great shape I was in. There was one specific training session in Leverkusen before I got hurt where, on the pole I jumped on today, I jumped 5.90 and so I knew I had it within me. I could go out with the confidence that I had the right pole and I had the right run-up. If I could just get down the runway it would be enough.

    “I can’t believe that I put up such a good first attempt. I was pretty devastated would have been good if it was just a rubbish jump but it was a really good attempt. But it wasn’t quite good enough for 5.85. I was just happy there was enough left in me that I could do that second jump. I made some pretty good improvements to my run-up on that second jump and that was enough to get me over.

    “In the qualifying round after 5.65 (which saw him advance to the final) there was nothing left. It would not have been possible for me to get down the runway and I thought tonight would be the same. This is why I was so devastated when I missed the first attempt at 5.85. I thought that my championship over. But I walked around a little bit, my leg felt ok, and I was able to have this second jump. I can’t answer whether there was a third jump in me (had he needed it), I just don’t know.

    “It’s been a crazy fortnight, a crazy two weeks. The qualifying round was very, very difficult in itself and now, to have this result tonight, I cannot believe...these two guys (Mesnil and Lavillenie) have been jumping well all season and I knew that, even if I was in good shape, it would be a big battle to win.

    “Under these circumstances I thought that there was no chance that I would come away with the gold medal today. I thought I could come out and maybe, if I was very, very lucky, clear 5.85 on my first attempt and that would be enough maybe for a silver medal, perhaps a bronze.

    “That would have been something I would have been totally satisfied with and it would have been fantastic for me but, for things to work out the way they did, and for me to be able to have that second jump at 5.90, and for it to work so well, I can’t believe it.

    “I was out there for an hour when everyone else was warming up and I was sitting around through that, so it seemed like a very long time. But, in a lot of ways, it probably worked in my favour. The French boys were very tired, I think, by the end and that probably just cost them a little bit. I was lucky I had this aggressive strategy but even more lucky that it paid off.

    “My strategy wasn’t to go out there and win the gold medal, my strategy was to go out there and jump a height that I thought I was able to jump with one jump. That’s why I chose to open at 5.85.

    “There are three people who need a lot of recognition – that’s Shane Kelly, my physio, who I borrowed from the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport), Adam Castricum, the team doctor who has definitely helped out a lot, and Alex Parnov, my amazing coach, who together with me came up with this radical, ridiculous plan than somehow has come off.

    “It’s a mental battle that you have to fight with yourself and you have to convince yourself that you’re ready, you’re ready to pick up a massive competition pole that’s going to throw you nearly six metres in the air. You’ve got to convince yourself that you’re ready to do an aggressive jump with the stands very close in – and you’ve got to be prepared to take that risk.

    “It has been a very, very challenging couple of weeks. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible with everyone throughout the process. Every day it has been a question of whether I jump or not and trying to sleep at night wasn’t the easiest thing. The people around me have made smart decisions and that’s what got me through.

    ‘I’ve got a lot more in me’

    “As this injury has developed we have realised that there is maybe a bit less muscular stuff involved than we initially thought and there is more neural stuff and we just shut that nerve off and I was able to get down the runway pretty well.

    “I’ve proved something to myself by this working out the way it has. I’ve got a lot more in me and I know that, if I can do jumps like this under these circumstances, when I’m healthy and I’ve got good conditions, a massive jump is not out of the question and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do in the next year.”

    Hooker jumped 6.06m during the 2009 indoor season and, as the Australia team captain here, he was his country’s biggest gold medal hope. Until 24 hours before his final, Australia were still awaiting their first victory but then Dani Samuels scored a surprise win in the women’s Discus Throw, the first athlete from her country to win a global gold medal in the throws.

    “Dani definitely ignited the flame so it wasn’t left up to me to do that,” Hooker said. “Just watching her, not only did it take a bit of pressure off me but it also inspired me a hell of a lot. She is such a young, fierce competitor and to do what she did under extremely hard pressure was just fantastic.”

    But no more fantastic than Hooker’s amazing story.

    David Powell for the IAAF