Good enough for the Games?

Sarah Cook, 11, pursues her journey to compete in the 2020 Olympics

Last year, when runner Sarah Cooke showed up at the starting line of the 3K event for 9- and 10-year-olds at the state’s Junior Olympics in Charleston, she thought she was way out of her league. There were close to 60 girls there, all attached to running teams and wearing matching uniforms, and all stretching and chatting in small clusters.

“I was the only unattached runner not on a team, so I guess that motivated me even more,” says 11-year-old Sarah, a sixth-grader at Hilton Head Island Middle School. Her father and coach, Bob Cooke, remembers that moment.
“It made her extremely nervous and self-conscious. There were a lot of girls bigger than her. She looked at me, and we both got tears in our eyes. We had no idea what we were doing. We were both thinking, ‘What are we doing here? We don’t belong here.’ The other coaches were wearing shirts that matched their runners. We didn’t match or anything,” Cooke says. “And the next thing I know I’m at the finish line and here she comes. She won very easily.”
Winning is something Sarah is used to, and she’s hoping that trend continues for quite awhile.
“My dream is to be in the 2020 Tokyo, Japan, Olympics,” says Sarah, adding that she’d like to compete in the 10K and half marathon races.
Those are certainly long-range goals, but things look promising so far. Sarah runs a 20:03 5K and trains with — and occasionally races against — high schoolers. Two summers ago, she ran the 5K Bluffton Scorcher, which is used by the county’s high school track and cross country coaches to determine their top rosters for the upcoming seasons.
“Sarah was the first female finisher,” Cooke says. “She beat all the high school girls when she was in fifth grade.”
The straight-A student had toyed with other sports, including soccer and ballet, before running sparked her spirit.
“Sarah had tried a bunch of sports; she’s just good at everything. Everything she does she does really well, but she quits. She loses focus and drive,” Cooke says. “Then we took her to a 5K five years ago in March, and she came in second in her age group. And you could just see she got the bug. She said, ‘I’m never going to lose again.’”
Because her sights are set so high, Sarah and her father have quite a training plan in place. It includes annual goals for times and races that should, if all goes well, get her within reach of making the Olympic team as a 17-year-old.
“If she could be an alternate that year, that would be great,” Cooke says. “To compete, we look at 2024. By then she’ll be a true competitor. But we’ve mapped out where she needs to be each year.”
Cooke says he and his wife, Kerri, don’t allow Sarah to run more than three or four times a week, and don’t do any high-mileage workouts. But he says Sarah continually impresses them with her drive and ability.
“She’s just one of those natural runners that you hate because they just make it look so darn easy.”