World MS Day 2021

World MS Day brings the global MS community together on 30 May to share stories, raise awareness and campaign with everyone affected by multiple sclerosis (MS).

The 2021 theme is ‘Connections’ and aims to build community connection, self-connection and connections to quality care.

MS or multiple sclerosis is a neurological condition that affects the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord causing a range of symptoms such as problems with balance, vision and muscle control. The symptoms of MS can be different from one person to another.

The cause of MS is currently unknown, and at the moment there is no cure. However, research is progressing quickly in the hope of finding one.

Victorian Institute of Sport athlete Carol Cooke AM was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 36-years-old, and told to prepare for a life of inaction, her first thought once the shock had passed was to use “sport” to fight back.

Born in Toronto, Cooke had dreams of representing Canada in gymnastics at the Olympics, but they were quickly dashed. Her mum suggested she try another sport if she wanted to go to the Olympic Games.

“I started swimming a year later, and that was my main sport growing up. At 15, I targeted that 1980 Moscow Games, but unfortunately, we [Canada] boycotted those Games. I just figured that [Olympic] dream was gone,” Cooke explained.

She went on to join the police force and represented her hometown at the Police and Fire Games before moving to Australia in 1994 with her husband. But this is only the beginning of Cooke’s story.

Just four years after moving across the Pacific Ocean, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). She was bluntly told “basically her life was over” and she needed to put her affairs in order before “becoming incapacitated”.

Image: Carol Cooke AM on Albert Park Lake. Credit: Getty Images / Kelly Defina 

“Retrospectively, I can say it was probably good that my diagnosis was given to me in that way because it made me see red. I was told I would never do this silly sports stuff again. [But] don't you tell me what I can and can't do.”

“I like to think in a positive way that it changed my life forever, but it gave me so many opportunities that I never, ever would have had.”

Cooke, who decided to continue swimming, went to the 2005 World Masters Games – the first time they had Para classifications – in Edmonton, Canada and won four golds and a silver. Not long after she was sent an invite to take part in a Paralympic Talent Search Day.

She went, did all the testing and a couple of weeks later got a letter asking her to take up…rowing.

“I thought okay, still water based, and it was a good thing I was a swimmer because when I did start rowing, I fell in a lot.”

It wasn’t long until she made the Australian LTA Mixed Four Cox team and had her eyes on Beijing 2008, but they missed out on qualifying by .08 seconds.

After refocussing on London 2012, the team was dumped. But a teammate that suggested she start cycling because there was a trike category (T1-2) at the Paralympic Games. They managed to convince Cooke to ride at the Cycling Australia Nationals and in her first race, she made a qualifying time for the national team.

Just a year later, at the age of 51, she was at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

“It was 41 years of trying to get to the pinnacle of sport and it was just a bit surreal.”

At the start line of the mixed time trial T1-2, she was fully focussed on what she had to do. Racing against men, the Australian knew she had to make up 20 seconds if she wanted to stand on the podium.

Giving it her all, as she crossed the finish line absolutely spent and cooling down as the rest of the race unfolded. However, it wasn’t until the head coach from Great Britain came up to Cooke to shake her hand that she realised what had happened.

“I kind of looked at him and I stuck my hand out and he shook it, and he goes, ‘congratulations’. I said, ‘For what?’ Because you just won,” recalled Cooke.

What followed from London 2012 was nine UCI Para-cycling Road world championship titles and two more Paralympic golds in the women’s time trial and road race T1-2 at Rio 2016.

In 2019, after regaining her T2 world championship title – she finished with two silvers at the 2018 edition – Cooke had her eyes firmly set on continuing her gold medal streak at Tokyo 2020.

“I automatically assume this would definitely be my last Games,” she said before adding, “I'd be 63 [in Paris 2024] and I'm thinking I don't think I can keep going the way the younger women are getting much faster, much stronger now.”

Cooke even targeted the dates her original Paralympic Games race day and did them virtually – finishing 12th overall but winning her category.

Image: Carol Cooke AM  riding around Albert Park Lake. Credit: Getty Images / Kelly Defina 

“That's what I used to keep going this year {2020} and keep a target of some sort because we had nothing else to target. So that was perfect. My training stayed the same. I just kept doing what I knew I had to do.”

While Cooke has a shopping list of achievements to her name, she says that her proudest achievement is the 20 years spent fighting MS.

She founded the MS 24 Hour Mega Swim in 2001, now held annually across Victoria, Tasmania, ACT and NSW.

The MS 24 Hour Mega swim brings together swimmers of all ages in a 24-hour relay event, in support for those living with MS.

“Funny enough it (Mega Swim) was meant to be a one off … here we are, 20 years and 20 swims later,” she said.

The swim raises money for the MS Go for Gold scholarships, financial assistance program and has raised a whopping $9 million in the past two decades.

“The Go for Gold scholarships gives people living with MS the chance to follow a dream,” Cooke said.

Although living with the never-ending symptoms of this unpredictable disease, Carol has the strength and courage to get up each day with a positive and motivated attitude.

Carol has learned to live for today and not worry about what may or may not happen in the future.

Carol believes that “nothing is impossible if we dare to face our fears and believe in ourselves and believe that the greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”

Banner Image Credit: Getty Images / Kelly Defina 

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