The Inspirational Carol Cooke AM
By Sam Squiers
I want to start this story at the end because as I’ve finished talking to Carol Cooke, I have tears in my eyes yet a huge smile on my face. She’s a cycling star who was a swimming prodigy, a great Australian who was born Canadian, a woman who moves all those around her, yet was told she’d be incapacitated.
But to tell you the end of the story…that Carol becomes an Olympic Gold medallist, a dual World Champion, the founder of a 24-hour mega swim that’s raised millions of dollars…well that’s only one component really. It’s some journey she’s been on.
So let’s start in the summer of 1998. Carol was off to receive the results of her recent MRI after experiencing fatigue, flu-like symptoms and balance issues. Being sick wasn’t something this young fit former police officer was used to; she was a talented swimmer who was set to represent Canada at the Olympics until the boycott of the 1980 Games killed her chance.
Carol told her husband not to worry about joining her that day as her symptoms had gone since the scan and she was feeling slightly embarrassed at all the fuss.
To say she was flawed at the doctors diagnosis then, is an understatement.
“He basically said ‘you’ve got too many lesions on your brain for someone your age’,” Carol recalls to Sportette. She was just shy of her 37th birthday and her 70-year-old neurologist lacked bedside manner to say the least.
“And he said ‘you’ve got multiple sclerosis, so basically your life as you know it is over. I suggest you go home and put your affairs in order before you become incapacitated’,”
“And I’m sitting there and all I said was ‘what?’ and he said ‘oh god you heard me, you’ve got MS, you’re going to have to quit work, you’re not going to be able to sport anymore and you’re going to have to go on a whole bunch of drugs’.”
Shell-shocked and quickly ushered out of the room, Carol to this day doesn’t know how she drove home. When her husband Russ called, Carol refused to tell him the news over the phone.
It was a long trip home for Russ, sick with concern the whole way.
“I said (when he arrived) ‘Before you say anything, I’ve already made some decisions. You can have the house and you might have to get somebody to rent to help with the mortgage, but you have it. We’ll just get a divorce and I’ll go back home (to Canada)’,” Carol said reliving the devastating news.
“And he just looked at me and said ‘You don’t have it, we have it and we’ll deal with it’.”
Her husband’s response flicked a switch in Carol.
“I thought to myself no one is going to dictate to me how I am going to live my life and I decided MS wasn’t going to define who I was.”
Carol had relapsing and remitting MS but kept working and was even promoted in her job. But soon the episodes (many of which left her in hospital) became all too frequent and she found herself in a wheelchair fulltime.
At this point, Carol would be forgiven for giving up on sport and exercise, but the opposite was the case. With botox injections in her legs and intense physiotherapy, Carol got back in the pool.
It was in baby steps at first, but soon Carol was out of her wheelchair and training intensely, swimming, rowing and then cycling.
“My doctor shakes his head and just goes ‘wow’ but they have proven that exercise does help (with MS),” Carol tells Sportette.
“I tell newly diagnosed people, make sure you’re exercise, I don’t care how disabled you are do some form of exercise.”
Carol is no longer in her wheelchair fulltime and hasn’t been back in hospital with a relapse since 2008. That’s the same time that her training started to really ramp up, with the London Paralympics in her sights.
At this stage, Carol’s voice starts to speed up and you can hear the excitement as she relives one of her proudest moments. It was the paralympics, the Individual Time Trial, an event that is raced against men and women.
It was a nervous wait for everyone to finish after Carol had raced, the times were being called out but she refused to get her hopes up until that last rider had finished. Soon it became apparent that the gold was hers and a flood of emotion followed.
From that 18-year-old swimmer dreaming of competing at “The Games” to the 37-year-old being told she’d be incapacitated, this was a monumental moment.
“I think the best thing was my aunt, my mum and my sister were all there from Canada,” Carol relives the moment to Sportette like it was just last week.
“It was so good for my mum and I thought of all those years she got up at 4.30 to drive me to the pool knowing what my goal was and now all these years later to hand her that medal and say ‘thank you’.”
It didn’t end there, since that moment, Carol has added 2 World Championships to her name as well as 2 World Cup titles.
But it’s her charity work that’s also earned her widespread praise. Carol founded the 24-hour Mega Swim. An event that started out as a one-off in 2001, has now grown to be a major fundraiser for MS. There are now 15 mega swims every year and as of May the event has raised $6million over 14 years, providing Go for Gold scholarships to people with MS, helping them directly to overcome challenges and achieve their goals.
It’s this success that saw Carol honoured as a member of the Order of Australia earlier this year.
“I was blown away when I received the letter and based on the charity work I did, so to think that a country I had adopted was recognising me was just beyond anything I could think was going to happen.”
This is one incredible lady, through tragedy and triumph, she just gets stronger every time. There’s something about Carol’s attitude, determination and humility that we can all learn from. If only that doctor could see what became of his ‘condemned’ patient.