Cooke puts winter plans on ice to get herself back on track

The Edinburgh woman, who represented Scotland in pole vault and long jump at two Commonwealth Games, is already back in training, having returned to athletics. She believes her best performances are still be to come.

Cooke won Scottish senior titles in long jump, pole vault, triple jump (setting records in each) and sprints, plus Scottish district titles in gymnastics and fencing as a youngster. Yet all that went by the board after she answered a Facebook advert. Five months after her debut on ice, she and another convert from athletics (Nicola Minichiello) were Britain’s first world bob champions in 44 years.

Winter Olympic aspirations in 2010 perished when the pair crashed on their final run in Vancouver, on the track where Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili died. Cooke spent almost 18 months fearing she might never walk properly, and describes going up and down stairs “sideways, like a crab”. Though she made in back to the GB No.1 brake-woman berth, she missed Sochi Olympic selection in February. Undaunted, she returned to athletics and achieved the Commonwealth Games long jump qualifying standard. “But I needed to do the performance twice, and fell short of the second by three centimetres,” she said yesterday while confirming her winter sport career is over.

“It’s been a difficult decision. Physically, I feel I’m in good shape and have more to give. I love the sport, but feel I have achieved everything that I am going to. I’ve had a great career and don’t see myself topping world gold if I were to continue for another few years. Injury was a big factor. I had two pretty serious big crashes. They did not appear particularly bad at the time, but had long term impact.”

Most of her best athletics performances were in 2008, the year she switched to bobsleigh. “That included getting to within six hundredths of a second of the Scottish indoor record at 60 metres,” she says. She hopes she might break into the Scotland team for the Emirates International in January.

Disappointment at missing her third Commonwealth representation was tempered by a role in the media operation. “It helped having the focus of working at the Games,” she said. Cooke had previously worked in media with scottishathletics and jogscotland, and did some work for The Herald and BBC, displaying a taste and flair for it.

“I enjoy writing, and loved the stories, the Team Scotland environment, and seeing the athletes’ journeys through the Games, but there aren’t many writing opportunities out there, so I am focusing on a career in communications and marketing.”

The Glasgow University graduate’s first job was in coaching, and she worked on the Actve Schools, Sporting Chance, and Neighbourhood development programmes to support her athletics before World Class Performance stepped in for bobsleigh.

“Bobsleigh has been part of my life for six years, but it’s time to look at my career and that’s exciting as well. Bobsleigh is not the thing that excites me the most any more, and I think that’s the point to step away.

“My decision is mostly performance reasons – what I can achieve going forward. Not being selected for Sochi was a massive disappointment. It’s affected my motivation to come back and do another season.”

Winter sport, she acknowledges, has a glamorous image, “but reality was different. It’s not as five-star as you might think. I loved the travel, but in reality you saw very little of where we went to: just tracks and hotels, although the scenery is fantastic. I did try to go out and see some things – stopped off at places like Colditz.

“But in Europe it was often 12 or 14-hour van journeys after having competed, arriving at the next venue late, and up early to train. It was very physical – not so much the sport. You do get knocked around going down, but the really physical element comes from loading 200 kilos of sled in and out of the back of a van, pushing it around at the top of the track, turning it over, working on it.

“There’s a lot the cameras never pick up. We did a lot of our own maintenance. Only in the last year or so have we had mechanics at events, and they are responsible for the more specialised side of it. The athletes still set the sled up for training and racing. Polishing the runners can be a two-hour job.

“There were some fantastic hotels, but never five-star. You don’t want to spend your budget on that. In America there was sometimes a pool and jacuzzi outside which was great for recovery, but in places like St Moritz, prices are through the roof and it was often youth hostel accommodation – quite spartan.

“You’ve got a bed and food, but you spend all day at the track. It really is just a place to sleep.

“We’d be up at 5am or soon after, loading and preparing the sled before breakfast, slide all morning and be off the run by lunchtime, for the tourists to get on.

“We’d have a little rest after lunch, do our physical training, then sled maintenance, and dinner.

“Ski resorts are generally not set up for training. We’d travel with weights, bars, plates, squat stands in the van, exercise bikes to warm up on, and medicine balls. All had to be loaded. We often did weights in an underground car park: snowy outside, sub-zero. You get used to it. I’m back here in Scotland, and the rest of our group is bundled up, and I am still in shorts, and one layer.”

Cooke stepped away from athletics, in 2008, as she puts it: “right at my peak. All my personal bests were set that year, so I never really found out what my true potential was. With the experience I have, competing at top level – albeit in another sport – and the training I’m doing now, I’m really excited about the future.

“I am running faster than I have done for years. I thought I was coming to the end of my career, and was ready to become a club athlete, which I still love, but I would love to make the Scottish team for the January match at the Emirates.”




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