Jeff Hartwig Talks Vaulting:
What Sets Steve Hooker Apart?


by Jon Hendershott


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In Part 2 of a long interview with T&FN Associate Editor Jon Hendershott, vaulter-turned-agent Jeff Hartwig discusses what sets the current world No. 1, Aussie Steve Hooker, apart from his rivals.

Hartwig: A lot of what I see plays into support staff. I think one advantage Hooker has going for him is, while it could become kind of easy for him to rest on his laurels, I see his coach Alex Parnov as a guy who is never going to rest on his laurels.

Alex has young daughters who are coming up in the sport [Liz placed 11th at the Commonwealth Games at age 16]. He was a vaulter himself and is in the sport for the long haul. I think that Alex looks at the big picture and says, “I want to try to perfect this event; try to figure out how to apply what I know into a training program with an athlete who has the potential to do what we have never seen before.”

Hooker might very well be that guy. When I saw Steve back around ’05 in Zürich and some of the other bigger international meets, he had a little bit of an unorthodox style of jumping. Yet he just catches the ride. He gets the energy out of the pole.

And probably the biggest thing he did to improve was work with Alex. He comes from the old Soviet school of coaching. But instead of saying, “We need to teach Steve to jump like a Russian,” he said, “We need to take things from the Russian system that we know work well and apply them to Steve’s jump.”

And that’s what they did. They improved the way he drops the pole and the way he transitions the pole into the box at takeoff. So he can transfer a higher level of energy from his run. All that takes a guy with incredible physical talent, but that’s Steve Hooker. Genetically, he’s as good as anybody pole vaulting. So he just catches it.

But this year, we saw a little bit of a strange year out of Steve Hooker in that he was a bit of a roller coaster. Very strong in the indoor season; really up and down in the outdoor season, mostly down. But then suddenly, he goes 5.95 [19-6¼] to win the Continental Cup. And he won the Commonwealth.

Also, Steve has tremendous pressure back home to compete in meets there. He’s a big celebrity after those Olympic and World Champs wins. I recently read his blog on the IAAF website and he said he couldn’t wait to get home and just sleep.

And when a guy says that, you know he isn’t physically tired. But he’s mentally very tired. Mentally, I’m sure Steve is ready for some time off. I would expect a relatively low-key Australian—and maybe indoor—season this coming year where he really has a chance to recharge his batteries before the Worlds go to Daegu and then a big buildup going into London.

Does Hartwig think its tough for an Aussie vaulter to have to contend with the reversed season of the European Circuit?

Actually, I don’t. I would think our season becomes more difficult. At this level, there obviously are expectations because everybody wants to see him jump high. But if he chooses a small window during that time, whether he’s up here competing indoors or down in Australia, it’s a short window in January and February where you have to be in relatively top form.

An advantage is when he gets through the Australian summer season and nationals, it’s almost a foregone conclusion to be selected for any major championships. So a lot of times, we don’t see him in any major capacity until around the first of July.

But with the U.S. system, we do have that buildup to the U.S. nationals, which takes on a role of greater importance because if you don’t make it through the USAs, then you won’t get that championship opportunity later. So we have to be in that close to peak form for a relatively longer period of time, where he does have a chance to regroup.

I do think it’s difficult, in the sense that coming from there, once you have jumped in the Australian summer, by the time you get to the European summer, it’s almost like your summer is nine months long. So it affects the mental fatigue you go through.

With an indoor season, there is a definitive beginning and end. Once indoor season is over, it doesn’t come around again for basically another 9–10 months. The summer season can be kind of the same, albeit a bit longer.

But for someone like Hooker, it’s a never-never, almost year-long summer cycle. But this past season was one of those periods where you could let your guard down a little mentally and find those occasions of motivation, like he did at the Continental Cup and you could put together those big performances. Those certainly show his physical fortitude.

Now it’s just a question again of his mental motivation. But I have no doubt that Steve will be right back where he wants to be whenever the time is right.

In installment 3, Hartwig will discuss what sets Yelena Isinbaeva apart on the women’s side of vaulting. “I wouldn’t go as far to say is the Sergey Bubka of the sport,” he says, “but she’s the closest to that that we have ever seen.”

Part 1: Hartwig’s long career leads to a new role as athlete-agent.