Three Paralympic golds, an MS diagnosis & undercover police work – meet Carol Cooke
“He held my MRI to the ceiling and his exact words were: ‘Well basically you have MS, so your life as you know it is over. I suggest you go home and put your affairs in order before you become incapacitated.'" This was 56-year-old para-cyclist Carol Cooke’s somewhat blunt multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis back in in 1998. “I was stunned.”
Photo by the Australian Paralympic Committee
To make matters worse, the specialist dismissed her confusion, telling her she would never do ‘this silly sports stuff again’ and would have to quit work and ‘go on a whole bunch of drugs’. “He topped it off,” says Carol, with: ‘I don’t have time for you, I’ve got enough people with MS to deal with, so go back to your GP.’”
Twenty years later, Carol is now a three-time Paralympic gold medallist and seven-time world champion. So much for the silly sports stuff. Always an avid sportsperson, Carol had had dreams of representing her country, prior to this seismic shift. Canadian born, she began swimming at national level: “My goal was always to try and make the 1980 Olympic team, but Canada boycotted those games [which took place in Russia]. So, I thought that dream had gone.”
Accepting that she needed a career rethink, Carol joined the Toronto police force, working in the undercover drugs unit: “I spent four years pretending to be somebody different every day. It was exciting. I look back now and laugh… I just had to remember what story I had told what bad guy!” she says.
Photo by the Australian Paralympic Committee
Unbeknown to her, joining the police force would reignite her dreams and allow her to race competitively in the pool again – at the first ever World Police and Fire Games in 1985. It was also around this time that Carol started visiting Australia, developing an enduring love for the country and Russell, the man who would become her husband. In 1994, she made the country her permanent home.
She began to take her swimming more seriously again, but at the 1998 Australian Masters Swimming Championships something went wrong. “I couldn’t understand what was going on,” she says. “I thought I was pretty fit, but was swimming really badly. I thought I had the flu; my balance went and I felt really lethargic.
“My doctor thought I had an ear infection, but then my eyesight started to go. I had double vision and it felt like my eyes were shaking side to side. It was about three months later that I was diagnosed with the MS.”
MS is a condition that affects a person’s brain and/or spinal cord, causing a range of symptoms like the ones Carol describes. It is a lifelong condition that can sometimes cause serious disability, although it is possible to treat symptoms in many cases.
At the age of 36, Carol was in the classic MS diagnosis age bracket and her thoughts turned to relocating back to Canada to be cared for by her family, so as not to burden her husband. His response? “Don’t be an idiot! You don’t have it, we have it. We’ll deal with it, we don’t know anything about it… Let’s find out what we’re dealing with here.”
Old habits die hard
At this pivotal moment Cooke made the most crucial of choices – far from lament her diagnosis, she chose to fight it. “My introduction to disability really began in about 2001, I was sitting in a wheelchair fulltime and I’d been in and out of hospital from a relapse and would have to learn how to walk again,” she explains.
Her medical treatment included Botox injections in her legs along with extremely intensive physio. “It got me out of the chair and back in the water,” she says. “You can do things in the water that you can’t on land.” It took another three years for Carol to regain her strength and in 2005 she competed in the Paralympic arm of the World Masters Games, catching the eye of the Australian Paralympic Committee, who asked her to come in for a talent search day.
Photo by Mark Dadswell
“Talent search days are usually for teenagers or people in their early 20s. They didn’t realise I was 45. So, I showed up anyway and when I walked in, everyone must have thought: ‘Well where’s her kid?’ They asked me to take up rowing, so in 2006 I took a course and that’s where it all started.”
Not only had she managed to walk again, but she had got herself onto the Australian national team – for a sport she’d never done before. “It’s a good thing I knew how to swim because the number of times I fell out of the boat I needed to save myself!”
MS in tow, Carol’s efforts culminated in a sixth-place finish in the 2009 World Championships. This left her optimistic about the chances of a medal at the upcoming 2012 Paralympic Games in London. However, her category was removed from the Australian rowing programme, meaning she no longer had a team to compete in and had to find something new – again.
Luckily, an old rowing teammate suggested she switch to cycling, knowing that they had a trike category. So, in April 2011, she competed in her first race and, as she puts it, “the rest is history.”
Photo by Tom Skulander
Astonishingly, just five months later Carol came away from her first World Championships with two silver medals in the time trial and road race. The time trial is typically between eight and 16 kilometres and is rider-against-the-clock. By contrast, road race riders start together, aiming to be the first to finish the distance between 24 and 30 kilometres.
Carol’s amazing performance booked her a place on the biggest of stages and fulfilled a lifelong dream – the London 2012 Paralympics, at the cool age of 51. “I knew that if I went out and did the very best I could do then that was all I could do,” she says. “It was the head coach of Great Britain that came into our area when I was cooling down who stuck his hand out and said: ‘Congratulations!’ I said ‘for what?’ And he goes: ‘You just won.’ To tell you what it felt like to stand up there is almost impossible, you take every emotion that you can possibly think of and wrap them into one – coupled with the fact that my mum was there from Canada, with my sister and auntie. It was absolutely overwhelming.”
Carol at the London 2012 Paralympics, Photo by the Australian Paralympic Committee
Carol’s winning streak continued. She was crowned world champion in the time trial three years in a row and twice in the road race. But more was to come.
Paralympic Glory, Again
In 2016, the Rio Paralympics called. Carol won gold in both the road race and the time trial, although London remains her Paralympic highlight, thanks to its remarkable atmosphere. “London was absolutely incredible. I remember landing at Gatwick and driving to the village, there was not one sign about the Olympics, but everything about the Paralympics! In Rio, the Paralympics were kind of an afterthought.”
For someone who has achieved everything there is to achieve and more in their sport, it can be easy to wonder why they keep going. “I actually ride because it is keeping me walking,” says Carol. “It’s keeping me healthy and I’m just lucky that I’m good enough that I’m able to go and win some races. It’s more about my own health and my own wellbeing and the fact that I don’t want to sit in a wheelchair again.”
And keep going she did, winning both the time trial and road race at the 2017 World Championships, making her a seven-time World champion.
Swimming still holds a place in her heart, though, and in 2001 Carol founded the 24-Hour Mega Swim to raise money for those living with MS, raising more than AUS$9 million. Now 56, Carol is a Paralympian, world champion, author, speaker and charity ambassador. Unsurprisingly when asked to describe herself in three words, she replies: “Determined, stubborn and dedicated.”
Could that determination see her compete in a third Paralympic Games, at Tokyo in 2020? “Tokyo is kind of like that far-off whimsical fancy thing. Maybe that will happen, it’s two and a half years away and maybe that’s a bit too far.”
You have to imagine that even approaching the age of 57, it is a very real possibility. You can continue to track Carol’s journey on her Twitter: @CazCooke and find out more about her on her website: http://carolcooke.com.au/