Simon Turnbull: Vaulter Hooker enjoys London high life as a Muswell Hillbilly

Olympic Diary

It is 12 years since Cathy Freeman jetted halfway around the globe to prepare for a home Olympics. The reigning 400 metres world champion at the time, she flew 11,000 miles, from Melbourne to London, to train for the 2000 Sydney Olympics with the British quarter-miler Donna Fraser at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton.

It was, Freeman confessed to The Independent on Sunday in July that year, to escape "the pressure cooker of home". "I'm left alone here," she said. "I can focus on my training. I feel really comfortable here. I like the fact that I'm not that well known in London."

It proved to be a shrewd move. With the pressure of a nation's expectations on her shoulders in front of a 110,000 crowd in Stadium Australia, the Aboriginal woman duly delivered a home gold – the first for Australia in Olympic track and field since 1988.

It was rather different when Steve Hooker struck pole vault gold in Beijing in 2008. His victory in the "Bird's Nest Stadium" – with last-gasp clearances at 5.65 metres, 5.80m, 5.85m, 5.90m and 5.96m – took Australia by surprise. He became a national celebrity overnight. The Hollywood comic Will Ferrell gave an impersonation of him on the Australian show Rove, complete with curly ginger mop and headband.

Three years on, like Freeman before him, Hooker has come to London to train for an Olympic Games. The 29-year-old from Perth has set up base in the northern suburbs of the English capital to prepare for the defence of his Olympic crown in the East End a year from now.

"I think it's a big advantage to be in London in the lead-up to the Olympics," Hooker told The Independent yesterday, speaking from Monte Carlo, where he opens his 2011 season in the IAAF Diamond League in the Stade Louis II tonight. "I feel comfortable being in London as part of that building process towards the Games next year.

"I've been doing a lot of training over the past few years with the British pole vaulter Steve Lewis. He's been warm-weather training with me in Australia and he's returned the favour by having me train with him in London.

"It's a situation that works really well and I'm happy with it. It's worked even better, given that the Olympic Games are going to be in London."

So where exactly is home from home for the reigning world, Olympic and Commonwealth pole vault champion? "I live with Steve in Muswell Hill," he said. Ah, the home of The Kinks... "Really?" Hooker said. "I didn't know that. Iconic band.

"Well, we live a real rock and roll lifestyle in Muswell Hill, anyway. I'm sure it's very similar to what The Kinks were up to back in their day on the Hill."

Back in the summer of 2000, Freeman set up home south of the river at Kingston upon Thames. A fortnight ago, at the age of 38, she became a mother for the first time, giving birth to a daughter, Ruby Anne Susie Murch.

"Cathy was under a lot of pressure in Australia in 2000," Hooker said, "and I'm seeing that with a lot of the British athletes at the moment, I think. Every day at training there's 20 cameras turning up to film athletes doing various things.

"That's something that the British athletes are going to have to deal with and it could be a real challenge for them. It's something that Cathy eventually found a way to deal with quite well. She put the result that she wanted and she got the training in that she needed to get that result.

"I think with that pressure comes as well a lot of opportunities for British athletes. They've got a great set-up there with coaching and funding and corporate buy-in to what they're doing. The overriding feeling is that it's a positive time leading into the Olympics."

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