Whatever the obstacles faced by Carol Cooke, she’s found a way around them. Now the gymnast turned swimmer turned Para-rower turned Para-cyclist is on track for gold in Tokyo. By Linda Pearce.
Unbreakable Paralympian Carol Cooke
When interviewing someone who is or has been a three-time Paralympic cycling gold medallist, world Para-rowing finalist, Masters swimmer, policewoman, author, speaker, advocate, ambassador and fundraiser extraordinaire, it seems best to start by asking them to nominate something they haven’t done. “Oh, man, good question,” says Carol Cooke. “I’ve never played a harp. But I have played a flute and a French horn. So, yes, there’s still time.”
Canadian-born Cooke, who turned 60 less than three weeks before her third Paralympics begin in Tokyo on August 24, had her preparation disrupted last November by the first major relapse of her multiple sclerosis in 13 years. Hypersensitivity meant even a lukewarm shower produced a burning feeling and forced her to sleep with her left arm raised to avoid a quasi-electric shock from bedding touching skin. Most worrying was when she started to forget words mid-sentence, which was later explained by an MRI that found new lesions on her brain.
Yet the woman who wrote her second book – The Force Within – during last year’s Covid-19 lockdowns was not about to let this setback derail what has been a remarkable story of resilience and commitment. Since being confronted with a crushing rejection as a nine-year-old when she was deemed “too fat” to join the local gymnastics club in Toronto, Carol’s response has always been to deal with obstacles by thinking outside the square.
“Look, this is not the body of an elite gymnast,” Cooke admits, from behind a mask, when we meet at the Victorian Institute of Sport on a pre-Paralympics training day. “But it was body-shaming and it started way back then – 1970. I was absolutely devastated. That was the first time my mum said to me, and I remember it plain as day, she said, ‘Well, if you want to do gymnastics, just keep doing it. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something. But if you want to go to the Olympics, maybe try another sport.’ So I’ve always just looked at things and gone, ‘Okay, if I can’t do it this way, maybe I’ll try it a different way.’ ”
Swimming was Olympic dream No. 2, but Canada’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics ended that. Cooke kept swimming, though, and a lifelong fascination with Australia ramped up in 1985 when the sole swimmer representing the Toronto Police at the inaugural World Police and Fire Games in San Diego met the only swimmer on the Melbourne Fire Brigade’s team.
“He invited me back to their big Aussie barbecue, which lasted for three days. It was my introduction to the Australian way of life – and to overproofed Bundaberg Rum. I’ve never had it since!” she says with a laugh. “But one couple who had a business card invited me to Australia if I ever wanted to come … Six months later I was on the phone going, ‘I don’t remember what you look like but I’m coming for a visit, I’ve booked a flight.’ ” Cooke would visit her “second parents” about nine times until 1992. By then she was slightly jaded with policing. “So I took a year off, came down here, and it was towards the end of that year that I met my [future] husband.”
Leaving her career and family behind, Cooke worked as a swimming teacher, then a parcel deliverer who rose quickly through the ranks to a managerial role at Australia Post. “And then I got sick,” she says matter-of-factly. Confirmation of MS came in 1998. “The neurologist told me on my diagnosis day, ‘Go home and put your affairs in order before you become incapacitated’ and I was like, ‘What?’ ” By 2001, Cooke was confined to a wheelchair, and stressed by trying to work full-time. So armed with a hard-won disability payout, she quit – reluctantly – to devote herself to improving her health. She lost weight and found a rehab doctor who used Botox in her legs. Did six months of intense physiotherapy, had more Botox, got back into swimming, and started walking again with the aid of a stick.
Then, after swimming at the World Masters Games back home in Canada in 2005, she was invited to a Paralympic talent search day, at the age of 45 and about a quarter of a century older than the next youngest contender. “I’m sure all the parents there were like, ‘Where’s her child?’ And I went, ‘Hello, I’m here for the testing!’ ” The suggestion: take up rowing. The problem: finding a club that was willing, after Cooke confessed to her disability. Enter Yarra Yarra Rowing Club, who asked only whether she could get herself into the boat.
All was progressing nicely until a 2006 relapse put Cooke into a wheelchair once again. Then finally, after much “you’ll never be fit enough or good enough” resistance from one Rowing Australia official that was reminiscent of that long-ago gymnastics snub, Cooke duly made the national team. That team, however, missed qualifying for rowing’s debut at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics by 0.8 seconds. “So that was heartbreaking, because all these years later I thought, ‘Okay, it’s not the Olympics, it’s the Paralympics; it’s not for Canada, it’s for Australia; and it’s not swimming, it’s rowing, but hey, I’m going. It’s still the pinnacle of sport.’ And, yeah, we just missed out.”
At 47, then, it seemed like time to give up. Until her younger sister, Cynthia, persuaded Cooke that, if she was still enjoying rowing, why stop? The next year, with continuing Victorian Institute of Sport support, her coxed mixed fours crew finished sixth at the world championships, only to be suddenly dropped from the national program in 2010. Solution: “Thinking outside that square again, I switched to cycling.” With London 2012 in her sights, Cooke snared the very last of the six female spots, which involved competing one-on-one against men. Following a challenge to her selection, an emotional Cooke won gold in the time trial at the age of 51.
Which would have been the perfect time to retire. For most people, anyway. Head coach Peter Day barely let Cooke pause for breath before asking about her future goals. The result: world titles in both the time trial and the road race; both replicated at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At which point, did Cooke start thinking about Tokyo? “Never. Never ever ever! Each year I just think about that following year. Because of MS, things are so unpredictable.” But, now, Tokyo it is. Bringing the chance for a three-peat in her pet event, the time trial, plus hopes in the less predictable and more tactical road race.
Through most of this, incredibly, Cooke has been involved in what she considers her greatest achievement. Back in 1999, a friend held an MS fundraising lunch at which the guest speaker managed the volunteers at the 2000 Sydney Games. Jo Fairbairn duly raised $10,000 with which she created $2000 “Go For Gold” scholarships to enable five people living with MS to follow a dream. Funding arrived but lasted only a further 12 months. Enter Cooke and a joint presentation to Australia Post’s sponsorship program, only for the pair to lose out to “Adopt a Dolphin”. Disappointed yet undeterred, some outside-the-box thinking again was again needed.
Perhaps her Masters club could hold a 24-hour swim, with a target of $2000? That seemed doable to Cooke. The president then suggested involving other clubs to raise the full $10,000 in one go. Challenge accepted. The City of Yarra donated access to the Fitzroy pool, plus staff, and even entered a team, one of 10 in that inaugural year. Mega Swim was born and $22,000 raised.
Phew, thought Cooke, we’re covered for two years now. Until, during the awards presentation, someone called out to ask when it would be on next year. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God. No, no, no, this is a one-off.’ But it just started to snowball, and we now have about 17 swims throughout New South Wales, Victoria, ACT and Tasmania.” Expanded to include racquetball, squash and badminton, Mega Swim has been rebranded as Mega Challenges, all for the MS cause. More than $11 million and 21 years later, Cooke succeeded in something else: stepping down. “Finally last year I just went, ‘That’s it.’ It’s been absolutely amazing.”
Much the same could be said of Cooke, whose failure to become a gymnast is one of very few in a remarkable life. She recalls at the 2017 Para-cycling World Championships in South Africa, being asked by an American competitor when she might retire. “And I just said, ‘Ooh, I don’t know. Maybe when they close the pine lid and put me in the ground.’ ”
Meanwhile, she will keep doing what she loves – training and racing – for as long as she enjoys it. After all, the Paris Paralympic Games are only three years away. Which, for a former cop who can handle a gun, sounds an awful lot like an opportunity. Carol Cooke, Paralympic shooter. Would you dare to rule it out?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 7, 2021 as "Up to the challenge".
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