MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The continuing struggles of Olympic champion Steve Hooker have left the shaggy-haired pole vaulter bereft of answers on the threshold of the London Games and Australian athletics officials crossing their fingers in hope of a miracle.
Hooker failed on all three of his attempts at 5.40 metres in the rain-affected London Grand Prix last weekend to continue a miserable run of form since he vaulted 5.72 metres at his private training base in May to qualify for the Games.
Since that emotional day, which raised hopes in Australia that the mental demons that scuppered his domestic season had finally been banished, Hooker has cleared only 5.42 metres in competition, and failed to launch on a number of attempts.
He has three weeks to climb out of the abyss before the pole vault qualification kicks off at the Olympic Stadium on August 8.
“I am definitely not standing here in the same place where I was four years ago,” Hooker said after the London Grand Prix, where four years ago he vaulted 5.97 metres in a warm-up to his triumph at the Beijing Games.
“I am not going to give up. I am going to go out there and fight the whole time.”
Hooker’s woes are a far cry from the glory days of 2008-10 when he jumped 5.90m to become the first Australian man to win Olympic athletics gold in 40 years, and later swept both the outdoor and indoor world titles.
His personal best of 6.06m, which he achieved indoors in Boston in 2009, is second only to the world record of 6.15m set by retired Ukrainian great Sergei Bubka.
After winning Commonwealth Games gold in Delhi in 2010, Hooker was grounded by a serious knee injury for six months and surrendered his world title meekly at Daegu last year to cap a miserable period of his career.
Hooker, Australia’s athletics team captain for the Games, withdrew from the domestic season earlier this year. Re-building the pole vaulter’s shattered confidence has been a collective mission in Australia, tying in sponsors, officials and psychologists.
Holed up in a re-fitted rail shed in a gritty industrial suburb of Perth, Hooker started from square one in a process he likened to a golfer re-building his putting technique after a prolonged case of the ‘yips’.
His Olympic qualifying leap of 5.72 metres was recorded in a documentary that was recently screened in Australia, and it graphically captured the wave of relief that washed over Hooker’s face when he achieved the goal.
The slow motion replay also showed the pole threatening to fall back and knock down the bar, which in turn teased the fibres on Hooker’s shirt as he descended with mouth agape.
“It was nice to have that old level of confidence, I haven’t felt like that in a couple of years,” Hooker, who turned 30 on Monday, said in the documentary.
Hooker believes it will take a jump of 5.90m to win the gold at London but he trails the best vault of 2012 – the 5.97m achieved by Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie – by more than half a metre.
His final attempt to find some form before the Olympics will take him to Poland next weekend.
Hooker’s chances of bridging the gap appear doomed, but Athletics Australia’s high performance manager Eric Hollingsworth hopes to invoke the spirit of Australian distance swimmer Kieren Perkins to inspire him.
Perkins, who won 1,500m gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games, appeared hopelessly out of form at Atlanta four years later but sneaked into the final and unleashed a stunning swim from lane eight to successfully defend his title.
“If Steve Hooker can replicate Kieren Perkins, then we’re in business, because we know his best is going to be good enough,” Hollingsworth told Australian Associated Press.
“The big thing is, if Steve can get off the full approach with enough adrenalin and focus and onto his bigger poles, then that is the key to the Olympic competition.”
by: Ian Ransom