Natalie Cook still drawing lines in the sand
Olympic gold medal-winning beach volleyballer Natalie Cook has made a successful sporting career out of grit and determination. Now she is taking that energy and channeling it into fighting on new fronts.
THERE are two sides to Olympic gold medallist Natalie Cook.
There's the fun-loving cheeky one, which doesn't just come from spending most of your life on beaches around the world in a sports bikini.
The charismatic 42-year-old has a playful wit. Once asked what she couldn't do without as a professional beach volleyballer, Cook replied: "I have about 20 pairs of sunnies. It's important to have the right ones for competing ... and looking cool."
But, then there is also the more serious natural-born competitor, fiercely determined to win whatever the cause. You don't represent your country at five Olympics - the most by any Australian woman - and claim bronze (Atlanta 1996) and gold (Sydney 2000) medals without it.
Having conquered her sport, the now-retired Cook - who famously led a successful push to have a woman flag bearer at the London Games (basketballer Lauren Jackson got the nod) - is leading a new crusade against childhood obesity while also intent on providing support for past, present and future Olympians.
She is also passionate about an ongoing campaign close to her heart - legalising same-sex marriage in Australia, something she believes has already taken too long.
Cook married Sarah Maxwell, herself a former beach volleyballer from Canada, at a ceremony in Queenstown, New Zealand in 2008.
"Well, (we're) unofficially married, 'cause you can't call it that," she tells Australian Regional Media.
"I'm obviously supportive of the frontline out there, and grateful for the work they do because without that lobbying and constant perseverance we wouldn't be as close as we are.
"For me, it's only a matter of time.
"Homophobia in sport is changing. We've never had a bad experience. We've always been welcomed. But we do surround ourselves with positive, happy people."
Despite their union not been recognised by the Federal Government, the Brisbane-based couple have made the best of the situation.
"I wear a ring, we printed our own certificate, so it feels the same," Cook says.
And now there is also a little bundle of joy; Maxwell gave birth to a baby girl, Jordan, in October.
To say it's been a change from the predictable nature of preparing for big events such as the Olympics would be an understatement.
"There is no schedule with the bub. Well, you've got a little bit of one, but it always changes," Cook laughs.
As well as the new responsibilities at home, since retiring from competitive beach volleyball after the 2012 London Games, Cook has taken it upon herself to inspire children all over the country.
She is founder of both Live Out Loud - The Nat Cook Foundation, and the SurfVolley program, which are both geared towards tackling childhood obesity.
"A child should not start their life overweight, so that's where my passion comes from," she says.
"Now I've got my own, it definitely makes me more determined to ensure every kid gets the best opportunity in life."
Cook, who grew up in Townsville as a member of Arcadian Surf Lifesaving Club, and is now working to get SurfVolley into Nippers' programs.
More than 10,000 kids took part last year, and one in particular had a big impact on Cook - an overweight child who didn't want to swim or run up the beach and dive for flags.
"They came up to the volleyball and sat on the side. I went over to them and picked them up and said 'c'mon, play this, it'll be fun'," Cook says.
"They didn't leave for the whole hour … they stayed involved, chasing the ball around ... not knowing that they were doing exercise.
"That was pretty rewarding. That's where I thought I'm doing the right thing here."
Cook remains heavily involved in the Olympic movement as Queensland Olympic Council president and recently joined the World Olympians' Association board.
And if that's not enough, she has also been appointed to Australia's Athlete Services Team for Rio.
"I was feeling a little bit ... sad that I could be missing my first Olympics, so now I get another one - that's six in a row," she says.
"It'll be great to be a part of the team and see the next generation come through, especially with the beach volleyball team.
"I've been doing a bit of mentoring work with them as well, with Louise Bowden and Taliqua Clancy. They're looking really good. Medals are definitely in their sights."
Being in Rio, it was probably always going to be a tough call to stop her attending.
"If there's one Olympics that could beat Bondi (in Sydney), it's definitely Copacabana Beach," she says.
"In Brazil, they say volleyball is the No.1 sport because soccer's a religion, not a sport."
Cook won her Olympic gold in Sydney with partner Kerri Pottharst, beating Brazilians Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede in the final.
"I'm probably more well-known in Brazil than I am here for beating their team in their No.1 sport," she says.
Although well and truly retired, Cook admits she "definitely will have itchy feet" on the sidelines.
"I'll have to make sure I'm sitting high enough in the grandstand so I don't run out on the court," she says.
For more information on Natalie Cook's work go to nataliecook.com, liveoutloudfoundation.com.au or surfvolley.com.au.