Time is the master of experienced athletes.
It controls training, it decides medals, and it sounds a gong on unwanted birthdays.
When the Tokyo Paralympics were rescheduled from 2020 to 2021, para-cyclist Carol Cooke figured out she’d be 60 by the time she raced.
“I was supposed to be 59 at the Games last year,” she said. “And I just assumed it would be my last Games.
“I’m not like a lot of the younger (Paralympians), who have put family on hold, have put careers, have put schooling (on hold) to be there. So, for me it was more of the unknown on whether my body was going to hold up another year.
Ten months ago, she had her first multiple sclerosis (MS) relapse in 13 years.
In this instance, there were two new lesions on her brain and spinal column.
She had trouble speaking, and every time she touched something it felt like an electric shock.
She was still determined to compete in Tokyo, although time seemed to be turning against her.
A long history of achievement
“I’ve kind of done my life a bit differently than most,” she told ABC Sport before travelling to Japan.
Save for her use of understatement, Carol Cooke is a one-of-a-kind sportsperson.
She was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.
You can trace her love of international sporting competition to the first Olympics she watched on television: Mexico 1968.
“My first love as a child was gymnastics,” she said. “It was me as a seven-year-old kind of going… wow, look at those girls and what they’re doing.”
She tried unsuccessfully to enrol in an elite gymnastics club.
“And that’s when I started swimming.”
Soon Cooke was a committed and excellent swimmer, with ambitions of competing in Moscow 1980.
She was on the selection borderline before Canada boycotted those Games.
“I probably would have made the team,” she said. “Close. But close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades.”
On leaving high school, she joined the police department as a clerk.
Months later she decided to become a cadet (her mother, father and grandfather had all been cops).
In the early 1990s, after a satisfying dozen years on the job, Cooke needed a break from policing.
She flew to Australia on August 31, 1994, to travel around the countryside. In Melbourne, she met her future husband, Russell, and they were married a year later.
In 1998, now settled in Australia and swimming in masters’ races, Cooke was diagnosed with MS.
The specialist doctor was blunt.
“The guy was not very good,” she recalled. “He basically told me that my life as I knew it was over. ‘Go home and put your affairs in order before you become incapacitated.’ I spent two minutes in his office.
“Getting it that way at the beginning, I was really angry. I look back now and I’m kind of glad he did that because he was waving a red flag to a bull.
“It then spurred me on to be that child that was pigheaded and stubborn when I was told, no, you can’t do something. And I just thought, don’t ever tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Cooke’s MS did not prevent her swimming. In fact, it gave her options for more competition.
In 2005, she made her debut in the World Masters Games as a para-swimmer.
Paralympics Australia heard about her winning a swag of medals and invited her to a ‘talent search’ day to find out what sport best suited her.
“Which I thought was kind of funny, because talent search days are usually for kids,” she said. “I was 45. I think that day I was 25 years older than the oldest person there.”
After intense strength, agility, and skill testing, she was told she’d be an outstanding para-rower.
“I’m thinking… rowing?” she said. “I guess that’s water-based.”
The realisation came with another awakening
She phoned rowing clubs in Victoria, looking for a training base.
Only one – Yarra Yarra Rowing Club – was encouraging.
“I said, ‘I have a slight disability’, and the guy said, ‘well, do you think you can get in the boat?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, (although) you might have to help me get out of the boat.’ He said, ‘Yeah, come on down’.”
She did a learn-to-row program at the club.
A month later she had a major MS relapse, temporarily losing the use of her arms and legs.
As always, she strived to recover her health and fitness.
The next year, she competed in her first Australian championships and won a gold medal.
During the next few years, Cooke rode a custom-made tricycle to and from the rowing club. (She needed the extra wheels because she had lost her balance.)
In December 2010, Cooke found out about a trike category in the national cycling championships.
After an impressive race, a coach asked her: “Where the hell did you come from?”
“Melbourne,” she said.
“No, I mean in the world of cycling.”
“Oh, no. I’m a rower,” Cooke said.
In her first go, she had smashed the qualifying time for the world championships.
A year later she won a gold medal against men and women at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Four years later, in Rio 2016, she won two more: T1-2 time trial and road race.
“When I’m out talking, especially to kids, I always hold my medal up,” she said. “And I say, ‘how many of you think this is success?’ and invariably every hand goes up. I say, ‘no, this wasn’t the success. The success was that after 42 years of wanting to do something, I finally made it’.
“The medal was just the icing on the cake.”
Cooke’s chances in Tokyo
At the world championships in 2018, Cooke won silver in the time trial and road race.
Winner was USA ‘s Jill Walsh, who is only two years younger than the Australian champion; Walsh is also has MS and was once a New York state trooper.
Walsh will be in Tokyo.
Another rival will be 2011 world champion Marie-Eve Croteau.
“And there are some new ones on the scene, which we have to watch,” Cooke said. “Because they’re getting better and better.”
Cooke’s great physical asset as a para-cyclist is her endurance.
Even as a swimmer, she always liked the longer events.
She’s also very strong.
“We’re not quite sure how, but I seemed to get stronger each year,” she said. “I’m still doing personal bests in the gym, with single leg presses and things like that.
“I’m defying the odds.”
Emotionally, she has always been driven to overcome challenges, which was a lesson from her mother.
Like going from gymnastics to swimming.
Above all, she has enormous self-belief.
“I honestly have this belief that what I set my mind to I can accomplish.”
She tries to teach younger Paralympic teammates to adopt that approach.
One young athlete said to her recently: “Oh, I hope I do well.”
This approach has helped her live with MS.
“I hate looking at the negative. I hate it when people say I suffer with MS,” she explained. “I think the people around me, who love me, and when I have a relapse and there’s things I can’t do – they’re the ones who suffer, because they worry. I’m not a sufferer.”
Cooke and her husband, Russell, celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary this year and her 60th birthday earlier this month.
She wrote her second book – The Force Within: from police officer to Paralympian — while in lockdown last year.
The Tokyo time trial will be staged on August 31 – 27 years to the day since she landed in Australia.
“Success for me will be winning the time trial for the third time in a row,” she said. “But as long as I give 120 per cent on the day and know that I’ve left no stone unturned – if there happens to be someone who’s faster than me on the day, that’s the way it is.