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 1500m started, he stood near the track to scream his encouragement for Russian girlfriend  Ekaterina Kostetskaya.

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 even less  useful in the delivery room than now.

If you did not appreciate the emptiness Hooker was feeling, 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 main stadium.

Hooker’s  title defence had ended miserably, unable to clear the bar at 5.65m  at any of his three attempts. At his peak, Hooker would clear that with a broom  handle.

Despite his vociferous support, Kostetskaya had 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 Australian 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. But whoever was more disappointed,  it was probably a good thing misery loves company.

“Bitter-sweet” is 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 5.72 metres  during a lead-up event in Poland. He had qualified for the final with a leap of  5.50 metres (if only after he had 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 even less useful in the  delivery room than now.

Australia’s Steve Hooker competes in the men’s pole vault final. Photo:  Steve Christo

Hooker prowled up and down in the no-man’s land on the far side of the  infield. 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 as he  prowled around the track. 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 at 5.65m, from his coach Victor Parnov who was sitting in the crowd  nearby.

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 Hooker is up, up…and not quite over. His feet  dislodge the bar, but he is high enough to grab it with both hands on his  descent. Not the most undignified exit.

Hooker put one hand in the air. The last time he would be acclaimed as  reigning Olympic champion. Then he took his place on the ground, near the  runway, and turned from competitor to fan. The Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie would  take take the gold medal with a last chance leap of 5.97m, eclipsing Hooker’s  Olympic record by 1cm.

“Pole vaulters love their event,” said Hooker. “No one walked away from that  competiton 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.”

When he did walk away, at last, Hooker’s heart was on his sleeve.  Disappointed with himself, proud of his girlfriend. “I love her so much, and it  was so great to see her run,” he said. “I just wish it could have gone better  for her.”

But he will keep competing this season. Hoping the small signs build into  something big. That perfectly timed leap that will see him rise again.

By: Richard Hinds


Steve Hooker

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