WRITTEN FOR SKYSPORTS
Sport is full of serial achievers, athletes who are obsessed with winning and pushing their boundaries further and Australian pole-vaulter Steve Hooker is certainly no exception, writes Nicola Bamford.
The 28-year-old from Melbourne is no less than the reigning World, Olympic and World indoor champion and just this week added the Commonwealth crown to his impressive collection.
Accustomed to attaining gold in a clear-cut manner, Hooker has spent the past few seasons as arguably the finest vaulter on the planet but this is a man who refuses to rest on his laurels in his relentless mission to become the greatest of all time.
Coached by Alex Parnov in Perth and based in Cologne during the European summer, Hooker’s latest victory came in Delhi on Tuesday night, where he leapt a mere 5.60m to defend his Commonwealth crown.
Taking only two efforts to seal the gold, Hooker ended a rare turbulent season which did include capturing the World indoor title (in Doha with a 6.01m championship record) and glory in the Continental Cup in Split last month, however.
In a prolonged 2010 campaign, Hooker experienced many disappointments, namely a series of no-heights in three IAAF Diamond League competitions on the European circuit before turning his year around to post the world’s leading mark of the season with 5.95m in Croatia.
Conceding his focus on competing in Delhi perhaps hindered his form earlier in the year, Hooker admitted:
“I think I had four objectives for this season - World indoors, Continental Cup and Commonwealth Games, probably Diamond League is the one where I didn't achieve what I wanted to.
In part, I think that is probably because I was always throughout the season having this competition in my mind and always thinking about doing enough training in between those competitions to really set myself up so I could come here and compete.”
The sacrifices paid off when it came to championship time, though, as Hooker added yet another international title to his resume:
“I said I came here to win gold and whatever the height would be I’d be happy if I achieved that, so I’m happy,” Hooker said after the event.
In pursuit of his own Commonwealth Games record of 5.80m set in Melbourne in 2006, Hooker raised the bar to 5.81m but opted out of the chase after feeling a twinge in his left, take-off knee – the possible after-effect from falling off the pole-vault bed in the Great North CityGames in Newcastle last month.
Were it not for the niggle, Hooker could have easily gone higher but he insisted he decision was purely a precautionary measure:
"I blocked all my attempts at 5.70m and my knee, which has been a bit of an issue over the last month, just didn't agree with that and sort of seized up a bit.
I really think I did just enough this season so I could actually get through the season. In the end, it probably did cost me a few good performances and a bit of consistency in the middle of the season, but getting the result, I feel like it is
I think it told me my season was over. I wanted to have one more jump, I wanted to jump the Games record, but I just didn't think it was there."
The frustration said it all for the man who only turned professional in 2006, for Hooker is an athlete who is always seeking more from himself.
Second behind pole-vault legend Sergey Bubka on the world all-time lists with 6.06m, Hooker seemingly has it all – a full collection of championship medals and the highest vaults around the globe for several years - but consistency and health is what he yearns for the most.
After placing third in the World indoors and claiming Olympic gold in Beijing two years ago with 5.96m to become Australia’s first track and field gold-medallist for forty years, Hooker had to use mind of matter to take World gold last summer.
Hampered by a groin injury and having missed 5.85m on his first jump of the final, he took the risky decision to attempt 5.90m and to then leave the competition – luckily, his tactic paid off.
“2009 was good for me – my goal was to win the World’s,” Hooker explained.
“I wasn’t happy but it turned out well. I was injured two weeks before but managed to come out with a strategy that enabled me to jump enough to win. I now always think that no matter what the situation, you can always find the strength to win the competition.”
The son of the 1978 women’s Commonwealth long-jump runner-up and four-time men’s Australian 800m champion, Hooker has strength and genetic talent aplenty on his side yet claims he might not even be an athlete today were it not for making the 2004 Athens Olympics at aged 22 – an achievement amongst many which he names as his greatest.
Regardless of how his season unfolds, Hooker has the ability to remain positive and focused on the future – evidently a calling of a true champion:
“My 2010’s been kind of up and down but the Continental Cup and Delhi were the two biggest comps of the year,” Hooker explained.
“In the middle, I had some difficult times - competitions not going to plan and that’s not something I’ve been used to in previous years so it was a different challenge but it’s good to come out and turn it around with some positive results. I’m just glad I finished the year on a positive note.”
For the man who is clearly accustomed to winning, one wonders how Hooker manages to not just deal with the constant pressure of being hot favourite but also to remain motivated to achieve even more:
“It’s good to know that I can perform on the big occasion,” Hooker revealed. “I look forward to the next cycle of events, and I’ve started that by defending my title in Delhi. It’s an exciting couple of years.
I’m looking forward to the preparation for the two major championships in Daegu (2011 World’s) and London (2012 Olympics) and I hope to get that right to use my past experience to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.”
With his immense amount of experience in success – and now a little in disappointment – Hooker should be set to continue his domination and reach loftier heights still.