Steve Hooker sat on the ground beside the pole vault runway, not 10 metres from where his friends, and fellow daredevils, were lifting off. When the women’s 1500 metres started, he stood near the track to scream his encouragement for his Russian girlfriend, Ekaterina Kostetskaya.

If you did not appreciate the emptiness Hooker felt, you might have thought he had the best seat in the house. But later, as the lump grew in his throat and the tears began to well, there were no happy memories from this night in the stadium. Hooker’s title defence had ended miserably after he was unable to clear 5.65m on any of his three attempts. At his peak, Hooker would clear that with a broom handle.

Despite his vociferous support, Kostetskaya finished ninth. Both had reached Olympic finals, an achievement of which to be proud. But her hard work, and his agonising struggle, had come to nought.

The public has watched, with perverse interest, the Olympic champion’s struggle to get off the ground. Hooker had seen Kostetskaya prepare for her own event ”with absolute professionalism and integrity”. So he said he felt worse for her than he did for himself. It’s probably a good thing misery loves company.

”Bittersweet,” was how Hooker described the night. ”But more on the bitter side.” Maybe that was because, after almost 18 months of physical pain and mental anguish, his hopes – and his body – had been raised. He had cleared 5.72m during a lead-up event in Poland. He had qualified for the final with a leap of 5.50m, if only after he played shop steward and organised a sit-down to ensure 14, rather than the customary 12, made the final.

Signs, Hooker thought, that he was back to his ”old self”. Yet, through the warm-up, and the 52 minutes his title defence would last, Hooker did not so much resemble an athlete in the midst of competition as an expectant father in the waiting room – back when a man was considered less useful in the delivery room than now.

Hooker prowled up and down. He stuck his pole in the ground over and over, conjuring sweet memories of bygone leaps. He fiddled with his track suit. Zip up, zip down. Hood on, hood off.

If you were unaware of the torment the Olympic and 2009 world champion had endured, he might have been mistaken for a lion marking his territory. Instead, like Greg Norman gripping and regripping his clubs while playing that fateful final round at Augusta in 1996, Hooker’s constant movement seemed the manifest sign of a man wrestling with his self-doubts. Trying, somehow, to block out a year of nagging failure and to seek reassurance from his subconscious. Or, when he flew under the bar at his first attempt 5.65m, from his coach, Alex Parnov, who was sitting in the crowd.

The coach’s advice was futile. At his second attempt, Hooker ran through, plunging into the mat.

That left only a single lifeline – the last chance upon which Hooker’s final four heights in Beijing were achieved. This time, Hooker charged down the runway and stopped short.

A second charge. This time, he is up, up … and not quite over. His feet dislodge the bar, but he is high enough to grab it on his descent. Not the most undignified exit.

Hooker put one hand in the air, acclaimed for the last time as reigning Olympic champion. Then he took his place on the ground and turned from competitor to fan. The Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie would take gold with a last-chance leap of 5.97m, eclipsing Hooker’s Olympic record by a centimetre.

”Pole vaulters love their event,” Hooker said. ”No one walked away from that competition before it was over. Everyone was out there cheering each other on. They were as excited as anyone in the building to see people go over.”

by: Richard Hinds

from: http://www.smh.com.au/olympics/news-london-2012/best-seat-in-the-house-for-miserable-hooker-20120811-2418q.html#ixzz23JvH0Fvm

Steve Hooker
Steve Hooker

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