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Hooker visualises his way to “what every kid dreams of”

Steve Hooker clears 5.96m to win Australia's first athletics Olympic gold medal of the 2008 Games (Getty Images)Steve Hooker clears 5.96m to win Australia's first athletics Olympic gold medal of the 2008 Games (Getty Images) © Copyright

It was sometime after 10 o’clock in Beijing’s National Stadium on Friday night (21) when Australian Steve Hooker took a moment to steady himself – perhaps the most important moment of his entire life.

For more than two hours, he had been out in the middle with 12 other pole vaulters as the bar crept up towards the height that would decide who was going to be the 2008 Olympic gold medallist.

Only he and Yevgeniy Lukyanenko, the Russian who’d been beating him all season, were still jumping. When they reached 5.90, they had already twice needed three attempts to keep their Olympic dreams alive; twice each they pulled out a clearance when failure would have put them out of the competition.

Now they were at it again. Lukyanenko jumped first and, for an instant, it looked as though he was over. He had the height but this time the merest brush of his torso brought the bar down.

Hooker realised he was staring at destiny. Somehow, this shaggy haired, head-banded 26-year-old, who for two years had become so full of demons that he was frightened of vaulting at all, had got himself to the point of winning the biggest prize in sport.

I am the sort of person…to take that sort of opportunity on, and make the most of it

In qualifying, he’d needed all three jumps to clear 5.65, and that just to make the final. At 5.80, he’d survived, but only just, his third effort a scrambled feet-first, mid-air shove over the bar. And at 5.85, he’d watched Lukyanenko go clear before executing some sort of twisting, legs akimbo flip to stay alive.

Now he had to do it again. But this time he knew it could be the one thing he would be remembered for, for the rest of his life. Fail and he’d be left with silver and all those questions.

“I took a moment before jumping at 5.90,” he says. “I just sat back and realised I was doing something that every kid dreams of. I had my destiny in my own hands. Yevgeniy was out of the competition and if I cleared that bar I was the gold medallist.

“I thought, ‘I am the sort of person who can stand up and take that sort of opportunity on, and make the most of it.’”

Somewhere in the background something was being announced to the crowd. But Hooker didn’t hear it. He took a breath and set off down the runway, pushed up into the air, arched his body and threw himself back, leaving the bar untouched. As he fell he thrust his fists out into the air. By the time he hit the mat he was an Olympic champion.

“To have done it is a dream come true and it’s amazing,” says Hooker, choking for a moment on his words. “The reality of it hasn’t sunk in, but sailing over that bar after a clean clearance I really got to enjoy it.

“That’s the good thing about my event, you get that opportunity to fall to earth and that experience that other athletes don’t get. Tonight I am lucky to be a pole vaulter, and lucky to be an Olympic gold medallist. I am a very lucky guy right now.”

Thanks to Emma and Mark

But it was more than luck, as Hooker knows. Gold medals take hard work – “so much time and so much planning and so much effort,” as he says. “So many sacrifices, so much has gone into this for me, there’s been so many people supporting me through all of this. This is not just for me this is for all of them.”

The story goes right back to when Hooker first took up pole vaulting at his local athletics club in Box Hill, Melbourne. Australian pole vaulter Emma George trained at the same club with a man called Mark Stewart.

“It’s basically because of Emma that I do pole vault,” he explains. “She held the World record at the time so I approached Mark and asked him if I could start.

“He’s been a big influence on my career. He’s an amazing man, a very good coach, and a very good friend. I think he’s probably going to be one of the happiest people in the world tonight. So much of it belongs to him.”

Hypnotism and visualisation

Within four years Hooker was in Australia’s Olympic team for Athens, although it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that sounds. He suffered a couple of training accidents early in his career, landing badly on the pole, and for two years up to 2003 was haunted by doubts and demons, even becoming scared of jumping.

Coping with the harsh black and whiteness of success and failure was something of a nightmare. He would have tantrums and end up in tears. Hypnotism and visualisation began to help, but even then life as a pole vaulter was tough, especially as it wasn’t his full-time occupation. He worked as an estate agent and went to college, too.

Getting to Athens helped him to see there was another way. The results show that he finished equal 28th there. But he watched as his friend Tim Mack held his nerve to take the gold, needing to set an Olympic record of 5.95 to do so.

“I was part of the Tim’s preparation for that,” remembers Hooker. “I got to witness what he did in the lead up competitions, what he did during the rounds, and what he did in qualifying and in the final.

“He was so mentally tough, he hadn’t won that competition till he jumped that 5.95 to break the Olympic record. I took a lot from that and he’s been in my thoughts a lot the last couple of days.”

About technique, about being professional, about lifestyle, about everything

With Mack as inspiration, Hooker made the decision to change the following year when he switched coaches and moved to Perth. It was a major decision. He joined Alex Parnov, coach to Tatiana Gregorieva, the 2000 Olympic silver medallist, and became a full-time athlete.

By the end of March 2006 he was Commonwealth champion and that year he cleared 5.96 to become world number one.

“I think I’d got to the point in my career where I needed a full-time coach, someone who could travel with me to competitions,” he says. “And of course Alex is one of, if not the best coach in the world. Alex has taught me all sorts of things about technique, about being professional, about lifestyle, about everything.”

“Both of my coaches have been the biggest influence in my life,” he adds. “Without Mark I would probably never have even discovered pole vaulting, never would have had the early part of my career, never would have learnt to just be a fierce competitor and go at things eyeballs out.”

“Without either of them all the pieces wouldn’t have be there for this to have happened. Both must take even credit for it. They’re both amazing guys, and are two of my closest friends in the world.”

That much was clear when Hooker sprang from the landing mat on Friday, and ran across the track to greet Parnov who somehow had leapt over the photographers’ pit and was running towards him in bare feet.

“Yeah, I got a huge man hug from Alex,” laughs Hooker. “I think it’s a tribute to him now that he’s coached an Olympic gold medallist because he definitely deserves it.

I love what I do and this is just the icing on the cake

“But there’s more than that as well,” he says. “There’s my training partners, both from Box Hill in Melbourne and from Perth. They are there everyday making it a pleasure to come to training. It doesn’t seem like work, or a job, or something that I have to do. It’s something that I want to do and I love doing everyday.

“That’s the thing I take out of this, I love it. I love what I do and this is just the icing on the cake.”

He wouldn’t have loved losing though. Beforehand Hooker knew he’d have a fight on his hands. All the predictions were that the gold would go to one of the three six-metre men, but with USA’s Brad Walker going out in the qualifiers, that left himself and Lukyanenko. Hooker wanted it so much he didn’t sleep a wink the night before.

“I could think of nothing else,” he says. “Before most things in my life I get a feeling. The last couple of weeks it’s just been crystalised in me that I can do this. Perhaps, in my mind I’d already done it. It was just a matter of playing it out in real life, I guess.”

But playing things out in reality is easier said than done. At first Hooker was too tense. “I was pushing too hard on the runway and I just really needed to let it go,” he says. “My whole focus at the moment is about relaxing. I jump much better when I relax. But I wasn’t that relaxed at the start of the competition.”

I loved having third attempt clearances, with it all being on the line

Ironically, as the competition wore on, as the contest itself became tense and Hooker grew tired, he began to find a sense of calm. “I wouldn’t have survived otherwise,” he says. “One of the big changes I have made, is that I don’t think about consequences of missing or clearing. I didn’t think about the interviews I would have to do if I missed and came fifth in the Olympics, none of that stuff.”

“That’s something that in the past I have worried about. But I was just in the moment, out there enjoying it, and loving being in a bit of a dog fight with Yevgeniy. I loved having third attempt clearances, with it all being on the line.”

By the end of the competition he was jumping really well, he says. So well, indeed, that despite having taken 10 jumps already he asked the judges to put the bar up to 5.96 and on the third attempt (he timed out before he could take his second attempt) he eclipsed Mack’s Olympic record.

“I lost a bit of the nervous energy,” he says. “My jumps improved technically so having all those third attempts was actually an advantage for me in the end.”

“In 2006 I jumped 5.96 but in that competition I did it on about my third jump. The thought of doing it on my 13th jump in the competition, it would never have occurred to me that I would be able to do that.”

Now, he says, even the World record is possible, referring to Sergey Bubka’s famous 6.14 from back in 1994. “There’s a new breed of pole vaulter coming through,” says Hooker. “Young guys like Yevgeniy, myself and Brad Walker. We’ll all work together to push up towards the world record and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was gone in the next couple of years.”

Hooker’s PB is exactly 6.00m set earlier this year in January. But 6.14? Now, that would be a moment.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF