Watching the pole vault, as I’ll be doing this afternoon for the men’s final, is a bit like watching a NASCAR race: something remarkable will surely happen, something awful might happen, and someone may very well crack under the pressure. As an Australian paper put it before the men’s qualifiers, “Will it be a train wreck? Will he get off the ground? Will the swirly conditions let the gremlins back in?”
They were talking, of course, about Steve Hooker, the Australian vaulter who has become nearly as famous for his fear of vaulting as for his success at it. Hooker won gold at the Beijing Olympics, in 2008. His career best in the event, nineteen feet, ten-and-a-half inches, puts him second only to the great Sergey Bubka, who dominated the event in the nineteen-eighties and nineties and remains the only man to have broken the twenty-foot mark.
But Hooker has the yips, or had them. His performances leading up to London were spotty: he failed to clear easy heights, balked at takeoffs, barely made it past the Australian Olympic trials. He was spooked. In February, in an essay in an Australian paper, “Steve Hooker Tells Why His Mind’s a Mess”, he confessed that “the confidence I require to stand at the end of the runway and then charge down, land my pole and soar almost six meters into the air has left me for the time being.” (Earlier in his career, he nearly quit the event altogether when he couldn’t jump and found himself throwing poles and tantrums in training.) He’s over it now, he says; he has worked with sports psychologists and hypnotists on visualization techniques to put his technique on autopilot. His first vault will take place sometime after 2 P.M. today.
To be fair, what’s not to fear? The event is ridiculous. You sprint down a paved runway carrying a fibreglass pole, plant the far end of the pole in a half-buried box, leap, and, with the pole now bent and serving as a giant spring, invert yourself and pirouette backward over the bar. That’s if things go well. Poles break, winds nudge you off course. The key to height is horizontal speed; a moment’s hesitation in the approach can send you vaulting in the wrong direction or leave you dangling in midair with the mat nowhere below. Jenn Suhr, who won the women’s gold on Tuesday, didn’t start vaulting until she was twenty-two. “I was afraid of it,” she has said. “I thought those people were crazy.” A 2001 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine counted thirty-two catastrophic pole-vaulting injuries, sixteen of them fatal, between 1982 and 1998. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research ranked pole-vaulting as the deadliest sport per participant.
“It is rational to be scared of it,” Mark Steward, a former coach to Hooker, has said. “Anyone who hasn’t pole vaulted really can’t appreciate the fear that goes through a pole vaulter’s mind.” In 1999, Emma George, then Australia’s record-holder in the women’s pole vault, was severely bruised when she failed to land on the mat after a vault. Mental recovery was harder. “You are almost having this battle in your mind before you take off thinking, I can do it, yes I am fine, and then this other voice saying, Oh, look the wind is a headwind, are you going to hit the mat?,” she later said. “It is something you have to commit to a hundred per cent, because if you don’t… that is when you have accidents.” Yesterday, Ashton Eaton, the leader—and eventual winner—in the men’s decathlon stopped vaulting after clearing a few easy heights: going for the world record wasn’t worth the risk of an injury that could cost him the gold. The biographical entry for German decathlete Pascal Behrenbruch, who placed tenth, offers a single insight: “He has a fear of pole vaulting and has been using bungee jumping as a method of overcoming this phobia.”
The battles with fear are sharp and brief; in between stretch long periods of potential dread, as you watch your competitors vault (or balk) and wait for your turn to do the same. Fierce mind games are waged. You have three attempts at a given height; scratch on all three and you’re out. But a vaulter often will pass on a height entirely, to save strength for still higher and more demanding vaults, as well as to intimidate opponents. Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, who finished second in Tuesday’s women’s final, “comes into a competition really late, tries to psyche everyone out,” Britain’s Holly Bleasdale, who finished sixth, told the Daily Express in July. “She wants us to say, ‘Oh, look, she’s not bothered,’ but it doesn’t work with me.” Bleasdale was also quoted as saying that Isinbayeva, who blocks out the competition by cocooning herself in towels and sleeping bags, “looks like a tramp on a street corner.” (Bleasdale later tweeted that she had never said such a thing and that Isinbayeva “is an incredible athlete.”) Merely getting to the event can be a torment: airlines routinely bar vaulters from checking their poles, often at the last minute, and lugging one’s poles from the airport to the stadium can involve unconventional means of transportation.
So why even do it? Perhaps because, unlike in the high jump or long jump or even platform diving, there’s enough time in there—two to three seconds of conscious awareness—to consider what you’re doing. For that briefest of moments when your legs are curled and the pole is bent and you’ve surrendered your body fully to physics, you can feel like you’re on a rocket to the moon, beyond all yips and gremlins. “I think the exhilaration and the fun comes after you make the bar and you’re falling,” Jenn Suhr said after Tuesday’s competition. “That’s the best part.” Winning doubtless helps, too.
By: Alan Burdick