Men’s pole vault gold medalist Steve Hooker of Australia poses on the podium during the medal ceremony of the athletics competition at the National Stadium, during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in this August 23, 2008 file photo. Hitting rock bottom six months before the London Games was the best thing that could have happened to Hooker, the Olympic pole vault champion said, after climbing out of an abyss of self-doubt to qualify last week. The 29-year-old jets off to Shanghai on May 15, 2012 for the weekend’s Diamond League meeting, having only just booked his ticket to London with a vault of 5.72 meters at a sanctioned event in Perth on Friday. (REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files)

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE, May 15 (Reuters) – Hitting rock bottom six months before the London Games was the best thing that could have happened to Steve Hooker, the Olympic pole vault champion said, after climbing out of an abyss of self-doubt to qualify last week.

The 29-year-old jets off to Shanghai on Tuesday for the weekend’s Diamond League meeting, having only just booked his ticket to London with a vault of 5.72 meters at a sanctioned event in Perth on Friday.

The party-like atmosphere of thumping electronic music, spotlights and an exclusive guest-list at a disused railway carriage depot was at odds with the enormous pressure Hooker felt as he stared down the runway hoping the painstaking work he had to done to rebuild his shattered confidence would pay off.

“I think for two years, even three years I was in a position where I had momentum, but the momentum was going in the wrong direction and it’s so hard to turn around,” the shaggy-haired redhead said in a conference call from Perth.

“I think in a lot of ways hitting rock bottom had to happen at some point for me to have that point where the only was up and now I feel like I’m on that trajectory and I’m happy that I feel like I can keep building on the things that I’ve been working on.”

Hooker jumped 5.90m at the Beijing Games to become Australia’s first man to win Olympic athletics gold in 40 years and has a personal best of 6.06m set indoors, only bettered by retired Ukrainian great Sergey Bubka.

Hooker’s dominance extended to winning the 2009 world championship and the indoor title in 2010, but injury problems saw him crash out of his rushed world title defense at Daegu last year when he failed to clear 5.50m and make the final.

Battling to recover from a knee injury and with his confidence shot to pieces, Hooker scrapped his domestic schedule earlier this year to face up to his demons in private and devoted himself to training at the depot in an obscure eastern suburb of Perth.

Rebuilding his run-up and jump had been like a golfer trying to get over a case of yips on the greens.

“To compare with golfing, it’s like rebuilding a putt, you just sink a million one-foot putts and then move back to two-foot and three-foot and four-putt putts,” he said.

“It was very gradual. It was just really everyday, small improvements from one session to the next. That’s all I wanted out of every session, a tiny step forward.

“Once I started getting into it, the first two to three weeks were really hard, at the end of my third week I jumped a personal best in two steps.

“When that happened I thought, well, if this continues I will be fine. And that’s what I kept putting my confidence in.”

FEELING INVINCIBLE

Far from being a lightning bolt of confidence ahead of the international season, Hooker downplayed his Perth jump as a relief, and now feels some apprehension as he prepares to battle other vaulters in Shanghai.

“That comp is going to be a real learning process, I’m not expecting anything huge there. I want to go there and just get back into the swing of international competition and get used to jumping with other guys,” he said.

“I want to feel again like I felt in previous years where I’m walking out on the competition area and I feel I can be the best guy on the day.

“In 2009, I didn’t just feel good, I felt invincible, but that was the culmination of four years, not four months.”

Hooker, who plans a crammed schedule of seven events before London, believes it will take at least a 5.90m jump to be a contender at the Games and is cautiously optimistic he can find the extra 20 centimeters.

“If things keep going the way I’m going, 5.90 is not out of the question. I’m really happy with my jump, what I’m doing off the ground is amazing but the variable still is my run-up,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep focusing on that … to slowly catch up to where my jump is.

“I know that with what I’m doing, I’ve got the potential to put up a big jump. And I know the Olympics is the sort of occasion that’s going to bring the best out of me if I do everything right over the next couple of months.”