When a multiple sclerosis diagnosis 16 years ago changed her life forever, Australian paralympian Carol Cooke’s passion for sport remained unchanged. Here she shares her motivating journey, which culminated in a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and an Order of Australia this January.
What do you remember about receiving your MS diagnosis?
I remember the exact date and time, 23 April 1998, 2:15pm. This is because the doctor who delivered my diagnosis told me that I should go home and put my affairs in order before I became incapacitated. He then told me I would have to quit work, that I would never do sport again and that my life as I knew it was over. He told me he didn’t have time for me as a patient and to go back to my GP. Hence why I remember it very vividly.
Coming to terms with the diagnosis, how and why did you choose the amazing path that you did?
After that initial diagnosis I did think that my life was over, but once I had information about what MS was, I realised that it was up to me how I was going to live my life. I decided that MS did not define who I was or what I could accomplish and realised that knowledge is power.
You have shown incredible determination in your life – what can you share with others?
I honestly believe in the power of positive thinking. That’s not to say that I don’t have bad days, I just try to not make one day turn into two. It’s also important to surround yourself with positive people because it really does rub off.
What are the challenges of the different sports you’ve been involved in, and what do you enjoy most?
I grew up as a swimmer and was hoping to represent Canada at the 1980 Olympics, but politics got in the way with the boycott of the Moscow games. I love swimming and still do a couple of sessions a week. I have always felt at one with the water and in another life was probably a fish!
I was then targeted by the Australian Paralympic Committee to take up rowing in 2005, as it was a new sport at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. I had never been in a team sport so I loved that change. The challenge for me was getting my body to make the movements as I had a really stiff leg, but I was able to adapt my rowing style to fit in with the crew.
I started cycling as cross training for rowing but because of the problems with my balance, I couldn’t ride on two wheels, and so I found someone to make me a trike. In 2011, I tried competing and found I had the ability to make the national team – and it just took off from there.
Aside from your inspiring athletic accomplishments, what lesser-known achievements are you proud of?
I’m proud of my involvement with MS Australia in my role as an ambassador and the 24 Hour Mega Swim. I started as an ambassador a year after my diagnosis. I believe that educating people about a disease that is mostly invisible will help others, so I speak wherever people will listen.
What do you love about life?
I love that there are opportunities out there to be had and we have the ability to do anything. Someone asked me if I would change the fact that I had been diagnosed with MS if I could. I answered, “No, MS has made me who I am and given me opportunities that I never thought would ever happen”.
Tell us a little about Mega Swim.
I started the 24 Hour Mega Swim in 2001 to help raise money for the Go For Gold Scholarship Program run by MS. It was supposed to be a one off event, which has now lasted 14 years. Raising just over $6 million, it not only provides scholarships but also funds a Financial Assistance Program and also Educational Programs for people living with MS.
Find out more at megaswim.com