Build. Achieve. Break. Repair. Rebuild. Come back stronger.
Aoife Cooke was merely 17 years old when her natural talent for and commitment to running led her to leave her native Ireland and journey more than 4,000 miles to pursue higher education and a collegiate cross country career at Arkansas Tech University.
Now, another 17 years have passed, and Cooke will soon visit the other side of the globe to run the most meaningful 26.2 miles of her life.
Cooke will be a member of Team Ireland and compete in the Tokyo Olympics marathon on Saturday, Aug. 7.
A native of Cork, Ireland, Cooke started running competitively at the age of 11.
“I did it for fun at the beginning, but I found I was improving when I was training properly,” said Cooke. “When I got to 15 or 16, I was winning medals and doing quite well at it. Then I got the scholarship to Arkansas Tech.”
Cooke’s sophomore season for the Golden Suns stands unchallenged as the greatest by a cross country runner in Arkansas Tech history.
She won the 2005 Gulf South Conference and NCAA Division II South Region individual titles to become the first, and thus far only Golden Suns cross country runner to qualify for the NCAA Division II Championships. She finished ninth in the 2005 national meet at Pomona, Calif.
“I loved my time there,” said Cooke when asked about her recollections of ATU. “I made some really, really good friends at Arkansas Tech that I still keep in touch with. I have really fond memories of Arkansas Tech. Everyone was so friendly and made me feel at home. I suffered a little bit with homesickness when I first got over there, but the people helped me.”
The 2005 NCAA Division II Championships proved to be Cooke’s final meet at Arkansas Tech. Injuries curtailed her collegiate career and raised serious doubt about her ability to ever run competitively again.
“When the injuries were really bad and it didn’t seem like anything was going to get better anytime soon, it was a frustrating time for me,” said Cooke. “I’d done so well up to that point during my college time in Arkansas, and then I went home and finished third at my national championships that year. It felt like everything was going great, and then these injuries happened.”
“For a couple of years, I did think it was over and there was no chance anymore,” said Cooke. “I started looking after my health quite a lot more…my diet, things like that, and doing stuff in the gym to help my injuries…and eventually it started improving. I got back to running recreationally for a while, and when that felt okay was when I decided to get back properly.”
After resuming competitive running in 2015, Cooke says it took “a couple of years” before she allowed the dream of becoming an Olympian to resurface in her mind.
“I wasn’t thinking so much about the Olympics when I first got back,” said Cooke. “I just started competing at a local level. I really enjoy mingling with other runners. There’s a great community in running. I just wanted to win my local races and properly improve on my times. I didn’t see it as much of a chore or a sacrifice so to speak because it’s something I really enjoy doing. It’s just that one thing for me that is all or nothing. I couldn’t say to myself I was going to just go back and do it for fun. I’ve always wanted to do better at every race, and I think it’s that mentality that brought me to that position.”
Just as her health and training were rounding into form, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Ireland. Qualifying events for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics began to be postponed, and then taken off the schedule altogether. Eventually, the Olympic games themselves were delayed a year until 2021.
“I kept training through summer 2020,” said Cooke. “There were times when I thought to myself, ‘is there a point?’ I can’t keep doing this if things are going to keep getting canceled and I have nothing to aim for.”
She learned in fall 2020 of the Cheshire Elite Marathon, which was planned for April 2021 with COVID-19 protocols in place. Cooke finally had the opportunity she needed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I trained throughout the winter,” said Cooke. “I got it into my head that it was going ahead. I didn’t let myself think it was going to be canceled. I trained as if it was going ahead, and thankfully it did.”
Cooke won the Cheshire Elite Marathon on April 25 with a time of two hours, 28 minutes and 36 seconds — almost a minute inside the cut line to qualify for Tokyo. In that instant, Cooke became an Olympian.
“Crossing the finish line was just incredible,” said Cooke. “That was definitely a hugely memorable moment. I remember going back to my car and my phone…there were so many messages and voice mails. It was a little bit overwhelming, but it was incredible to see all of the support.”
Come Back Stronger
Cooke departed Ireland and arrived in Utah in early June to begin altitude training and start acclimating herself to the warmer climate she will encounter in Japan.
She said that a top-20 finish in the Tokyo Olympics would make her “really happy,” but she also has the perspective of someone who not so long ago thought her running days might be complete.
“This will be my first experience running internationally in quite a long time, so I’m going to soak up the experience of this one,” said Cooke. “I’m pretty young still by marathon standards. I would like to run maybe in the world championships in Oregon next year and make it to the next Olympics in Paris in 2024. Hopefully, I’ll have a lot more experience under my belt and be able to put in a really good performance then.”