Kieren Perkins has been where Steve Hooker is now. He knows what it is to be the champion no one expects to be able to fly again.
Perkins did, though. In Atlanta in 1996, he defied logic, odds and the widest of lanes to defend his Olympic 1500-metre crown. It was one of the most inspiring Olympic performances because it was so unexpected. It proved the danger of presuming to write off a champion. It has provided a word of caution about jumping to write the epitaph for Steve Hooker’s outrageously successful career.
Hooker has won every title there is to win in pole vaulting but he has not done that for a year or more now, constricted by a muddled mind that forced him to break down his entire jump months before the Olympics and rebuild it. It was a painstaking approach and one Hooker believed was complete when he left Australia to begin competing overseas.
Then events, or more specifically the weather, dampened the excitement of the Australian team captain’s resurrection. He met rain in Shanghai in his first meeting and could not get off the ground; he went to Europe and struck similar troubles. He managed to record a height of 5.42m in Rome and in Munich a week later he cleared 5.20m but these were heights that were going to threaten no one. Even when he again cleared 5.42m in Lille it left the idea of a true comeback unanswered because he went on to Madrid and London and failed to record a height at either meet.
The fact Hooker was off the ground again was positive but if he could do no better than 5.42m he was not going to have a successful Olympics. But then Poland changed the look of Steve Hooker’s Olympics. In Szczecin, on the eve of the Games, Hooker jumped 5.72m – his highest in a long time – and sent a ripple through the jumping world. He was flying again.
”All along I have been saying I actually feel all right, I have been doing things pretty well and have just been in challenging comps, so in a way [Poland] showed that wasn’t all smoke and mirrors,” Hooker said at the time. ”What has been happening in the public eye and what has been happening in these comps isn’t reflective of what I have been doing at training. I feel it has been coming along and improving the whole season and I am in a really good place.”
As he observed, a jump of 5.72m in the qualifying round today would get him through to the final. And then, as Perkins proved – he qualified for the final of the 1500m by just 0.24 seconds in Atlanta – anything can happen.
”The Olympics is all about mentality,” Perkins said this week. ”You see a group of finalists in any sport … they’re all amazing physical specimens, they’ve all been through hell and back to get to this moment and be there. The thing that will see one person standing on the gold medal dais and someone else not, is what’s going on between their ears. So absolutely, I’ve got no doubt [Hooker] can do it. He’s just got to find the right head space to get the job done.”
Perkins said Hooker knew what that head space was. He knew what was required, which was both a good and bad thing.
”It’s one of those uniquely odd situations where you’ve climbed the highest mountain, you’ve been there and done it, and in some respects, it actually makes it more challenging because you know what you’re in for next time,” Perkins said. ”Ignorance is bliss, as they say – when you don’t really understand, it can be simpler.
”But on the flipside … you know what’s involved, you know how you’ve got to get it done. I think the hardest thing for a lot of older athletes is to actually bring it back and focus on the stuff that matters.
”If you’ve got the right perspective and you understand the true significance of success and failure, you’re in a much better position to get the job done.”
As much as the mental side of jumping will influence Hooker, what he did in Poland is potentially get into the heads of the men he will be contending with. France’s Renaud Lavillenie won most of the warm-up meetings in Europe and cleared the world-leading height (5.97m) before the Games while German Malte Mohr has cleared 5.91m and his countryman Bjorn Otto has a 5.92m season best.
Hooker has presence and charisma and when he jumps well, he has a strut about him that intimidates his rivals. They will doubtless have looked at his result in Poland and thought, as Hooker’s training partner Alana Boyd did, ”he is back to his old form”.
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